The National Geographic Channel has a new docudrama entitled KILLING LINCOLN, airing tonight. It is based on the book by Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard, and revolves around the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln, looking at what motivates John Wilkes Booth to do the deed, and the immediate aftermath of the act.
The screen version of KILLING LINCOLN unfolds much like a History Channel special. There is narration by Tom Hanks, whom we see from time to time as he speaks, and events are re-enacted. There is some degree of repetition, though not as much as you’d expect from something like this, and suspense is built somewhat artificially, even though just watching things unfold would provide excitement enough.
The difference between KILLING LINCOLN and other history specials is the level of acting presented. While this special does still contain some hammy exaggeration, this is accomplished by well respected performers in their fields, whom have resumes of other television and movie work. As such, it feels a little more authentic and of slightly higher quality than most of its peers.
Billy Campbell (The Killing) plays Lincoln himself. Campbell takes a softer tact, and his version of the POTUS is a kind and gentle man, friend to cabinet members and former slaves alike. He comes across as almost saintly. Similarly, Mary Todd Lincoln (Geraldine Hughes, Gran Torino) is whitewashed into a charming and loving wife and mother, with barely a trace of the mental instability that she is so famous for.
I admit, I am disappointed to see Lincoln so affectionate towards Secretary of State Seward (Ted Johnson, Lincoln), laid up in bed from a carriage accident. If one has studied these two men at all, the animosity between them is infamous. Yes, they get along by the end of Lincoln’s life, but the sort of relationship we see between them here is not at all complicated or reminiscent of their past feuding. Again, like much of KILLING LINCOLN, we are viewing this through biased, rose-colored glasses.
Booth, on the other hand, played by Jesse Johnson (Redline), is the polar opposite of this Lincoln, loud and dramatic. An actor by trade, this may make sense for the character, who has a huge ego and much affection for the South and its way of life. He is dastardly, a criminal mastermind and leader of the hit squad, drawing all focus whenever he is on screen, and seen as the person behind it all.
This makes for a relatively entertaining piece. Yes, the good and evil sides are taken to extremes in such a way that it’s hard to believe it can realistic. But it does an adequate job of outlining what happened, and the narration does admit to being a little unclear about some of the details, such as quotes said or not said. In the end, the story gets told, and though the focus is on Booth, those who don’t realize the killing was supposed to be part of a triple attack will learn something.
The pacing is a little slow, especially after the murder. Not a lot happens as Booth flees, and yet, this is a significant chunk of the running time. Other reviewers have accused KILLING LINCOLN of being boring, and I wouldn’t go that far. But it certainly doesn’t feel like something that would have run in theaters, or even broadcast television.
There are definitely scenes that are likely fictional, added just to prove a point. One such moment is when Lincoln stops to speak to an elderly African American while touring the conquered Southern capital. Something similar may have actually happened, but the way that it plays out in this special leaves little doubt that it’s a parable, meant to teach a lesson about Lincoln, rather than repeating exact dialogue from those involved.
As for historical accuracy, well, that leaves a little something to be desired. The source material which KILLING LINCOLN is based on has been criticized quite severely because of the numerous untruths contained within, and while O’Reilly calls it non-fiction, others consider it a novel. The missteps are mostly details, such as a scene set in the Oval Office that couldn’t have happened since the Oval Office hadn’t been built yet, and Ford’s theater did not have the portrait of Washington on the front of the box. But it’s enough to make one question how much research and care actually went into the book.
In the film, some of the disputed details are present and some aren’t. This worries me, as many will likely see KILLING LINCOLN as fact, given Hanks’ involvement and the cast, even as some will dismiss this because of O’Reilly’s famously conservative bend. Again, it’s more details that are wrong, rather than the broad arc of the actions themselves. But it’s these minor things that could have been corrected that would have made it a more reliable and important work.
Overall, KILLING LINCOLN could be better, but it could be worse. If you are curious about the assassination, it’s not a bad piece to check out. But for those who know the story well, it comes across as hokey, exaggerated, and a little off, so the history buffs may want to skip it.
CHIEF TELEVISION CRITIC | Creator of and writer for It's All Been Done Radio Hour live show and podcast. A voracious reader wanting to tell stories of his own, Jerome began writing around the age of 8 and hasn’t stopped, both original works and television reviews. Lives in central Ohio. Favorite current shows include The Walking Dead, Jessica Jones, Flaked, Outlander, and Archer.