National Geographic Channel turns back clock with ‘Killing Reagan’

Cynthia Nixon as first lady Nancy Reagan and Tim Matheson as President Ronald Reagan in Killing Reagan.
Cynthia Nixon as first lady Nancy Reagan and Tim Matheson as President Ronald Reagan in Killing Reagan. National Geographic Channels/SMPSP

While filming Killing Reagan, the story of John Hinckley Jr.’s attempt to assassinate the president in 1981, actor Tim Matheson endlessly marveled at the production’s attention to historical detail.

Many documentaries aren’t as painstakingly accurate as this movie, which premieres at 7 p.m. Sunday on National Geographic Channel.

Matheson, who needs only a few minutes in the makeup chair to bear a striking resemblance to Reagan, heads up a cast of uncanny look-alikes.

What’s more, every visual in the film is a faithful replication of the original — from the furniture in the Reagan Oval Office to the choreography of the assassination attempt to the precise pigment of Reagan’s red sweater when he triumphantly left the hospital with first lady Nancy Reagan.

“Here’s an example of how detail-oriented everything was,” Matheson says. “We were filming the assassination scene when one of the guys, a very prominent background artist in the crowd standing near Hinckley, waves to me and comes over between takes.

“He says, ‘Tim, we’ve met.’ And I immediately remembered him. His niece was a classmate with my son at Columbia University and I had met him about eight months before at graduation.

“I said, ‘Wow, I can’t believe you’re here.’ And he said, ‘Yeah, I normally don’t do this kind of thing.’ But it turned out that somebody had seen his picture and thought he looked just like the guy standing next to Hinckley in the assassination footage, so they hired him.”

When the extras in background scenes, with nary a line of dialogue to utter, are cast with this much tender loving care, you know you’ve got a film that goes the extra mile to get it right.

Killing Reagan, which also stars Cynthia Nixon as Nancy Reagan and newcomer Kyle More as Hinckley, is based on the bestselling historical thriller by Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard.

The story recaps the remarkable series of events before and after Hinckley shot and nearly killed the 40th president on March 30, 1981, in a deluded attempt to win the heart of actress Jodie Foster.

Matheson — whose acting résumé ranges from Jonny Quest cartoons to National Lampoon’s Animal House to The West Wing (as the vice president) — jumped at the opportunity to play Reagan.

“The great thing about a character like this and a movie like this, it’s our version of Shakespeare,” Matheson says. “It’s great drama, like our version of Henry IV, Parts I and II.”

Watching Killing Reagan is also like a history lesson that’s more compellingly told than a staid classroom lecture.

“Bill O’Reilly’s books [which include Killing Lincoln, Killing Kennedy and Killing Jesus] are so smart in the way they approach history from a dramatic point of view,” Matheson says. “They’re mystery and suspense stories. You get the history for free, without even realizing that you’re learning something.”

On the set, Matheson and Nixon were constantly finding out some detail (such as the fact that Hinckley originally had stalked President Jimmy Carter) that made them say, “Oh, my god, I had no idea!”

Speaking of Hinckley, the story doesn’t get much creepier than when the young man is obsessing over Foster, with whom he had become infatuated after seeing her in the movie Taxi Driver.

Hinckley moved to New Haven, Conn., after reading that Foster had enrolled at Yale University. He sent her letters, slipped poems under her dorm room door and even phoned her a couple of times.

“He was actually thinking about killing Jodie and then himself at one point,” More says. “It was just happenstance that Reagan’s schedule (listing an appearance at the Washington Hilton) was published in the newspaper, causing Hinckley to change his plans.

“Imagine the ways history would be different today if Hinckley hadn’t read that newspaper.”

While the film was in production, director Rod Lurie (The Contender, Commander in Chief) insisted that More was not to meet and interact with Matheson, Nixon or Michael H. Cole (who plays White House Press Secretary James Brady, who was hit by one of the assassin’s bullets).

“I wanted Kyle to feel completely isolated from everybody else,” Lurie explains. “I wanted him to feel that he was a pariah.”

As a result, there’s a profound sense of sadness in More’s performance.

“We had some very famous actors who wanted to play that role,” Lurie says. “But we chose Kyle over all of them, not just because he looked so much like Hinckley, but also because he’s a very good actor.

“After we finished shooting, I told him, ‘Buddy, it’s a good thing you’re already married, because after this movie comes out, no woman will ever want to date you!’ 

Killing Reagan

  • 7 p.m. Sunday
  • National Geographic Channel