Killing Lincoln

Killing Lincoln debuts tonight on the National Geographic Channel at 8 p.m. Eastern.

One might be forgiven for being suspicious of Killing Lincoln, the National Geographic Channel’s dramatization of the days leading up to the assassination of America’s 16th president, based as it is on Fox News blowhard Bill O’Reilly’s controversial book of the same name. After all, for many of the O’Reilly supporters who helped make his book a bestseller, assassin John Wilkes Booth, with his militant and violent anti-big-government rhetoric against a president he perceives as biased against the white man, could be refashioned as the Tea Party’s stealth folk hero. When in the film, at a presidential address among his co-conspirators, Killing Lincoln’s Booth loudly drops an N-bomb and then aggressively stares down the one dignified old black man nearby who turns in offense, and then self-aggrandizingly boasts that “this will be the last speech he ever gives” while belittling the manhoods of the other would-be assassins, it’s hard not to be put in mind of the Tea Partiers with their bullying tactics, thinly-veiled racism, and paranoid bluster. Throw in a misspelled sign and he’d be right at home on O’Reilly’s home network. Sure, the film is narrated by America’s most trusted man Tom Hanks, and O’Reilly gets merely a “based on the novel by” credit (the screenplay is listed to Band of Brothers writer Erik Jendresen), but surely there’s some incendiary, right-wing sloganeering going on here, right?

Well, no, actually. Killing Lincoln is a leadenly pedestrian hybrid of documentary and cinematic political thriller that, neither fish nor fowl, fails tiredly on both levels.

On the one hand, as a piece of drama Killing Lincoln plays much like an episode of Unsolved Mysteries, but with marginally more qualified re-enactors and Hanks, along as a vastly overqualified Robert Stack, linking the flatly re-imagined events with a prosaically penned narration of those exact same events. That, coupled with an oversimplified and psychologically pat depiction of both Booth and Lincoln, renders this docudrama both dramatically inert and sensationalistic at the same time.

As Lincoln, Billy Campbell attempts to subsume his natural twinkliness under a gravitas composed of equal parts throaty whisper, scruffy chin beard, heavily wrinkled brow, and homespun aphorisms aplenty. It’s not that Campbell’s anything but serviceable as Lincoln (and it’s not fair that the definitive screen Lincoln is topmost in everyone’s mind at the moment) but it’s a function of the choppy, glib docudrama structure that Campbell’s Lincoln never gains any dramatic momentum. His becomes a greatest hits Abe: Sharpening a little boy’s pencil with his penknife. Bidding an old crippled ex-slave to rise and “kneel to God only.” Visiting his injured friend, Secretary of State William Seward, and salving the man’s wounds with gentle words and humble tales of “sitting in Jefferson Davis’ chair.” After one such folksy anecdote (appealing to a frightened private to keep quiet about a possible early assassination attempt), narrator Hanks breaks in to intone, with an admiring, Lincoln-esque folksiness of his own, “That was Abraham Lincoln,” as if that one (possibly-invented) action sums up the man in toto. And for Killing Lincoln, it essentially does.

It’s hard not to get a little choked up along with Killing Lincoln’s hagiography of the man: it’s a function of that beatification of Lincoln we as Americans have ingrained in us. We want this Lincoln- the noble, kind, countrified goodness of him. For we have come to conflate his perceived goodness with that of our own as a people. Killing Lincoln does nothing but feed this too-simple view of Lincoln, and us, even as the film flails away in its attempt to jump start both its thriller plot and its conception of John Wilkes Booth as Lincoln’s dramatic and historical equal.

Booth is introduced on the eve of the assassination, lighting his cigarette rakishly on a standing torch, then perching the lit butt on a box office shelf. It’s the beginning of Killing Lincoln’s stated intention of creating a more complete portrait of the figure who, as Hanks’ narration claims, has been “reduced to a two-dimensional scoundrel and a madman” in the public consciousness. (Maybe it’s a function of me reading more than one book in my life, but I always viewed Booth as, instead, a fanatically devoted proponent of state’s rights with a hatred of what he perceived as the consolidation of power in the hands of a despot, and a virulent racist reacting with murderous fury against the man credited with granting human rights to the black man. Anyway...) As to the film’s avowed intent to de-demonize Booth, Jesse Johnson’s portrayal is an obstacle, as there’s not a single scene where his Booth isn’t sneering and preening like a, well, bad actor. Which is not to say that the largely unknown Johnson is a bad actor: It’s a tricky task to separate a decent actor portraying a bad one from an actor who’s just plain bad, but, with mustache historically adroop and his thin, reedy voice aping the cadences of the stage as he repetitively speechifies about his murderous intentions it’s not a question of whom to blame for this Booth being insufferable. He’s just insufferable. If Killing Lincoln offers any original insight into the man, it’s that he was a bullying, self-aggrandizing bigot whose monomaniacal dedication to Lincoln’s murder was as much a result of his aggressively sentimentalized conception of honor and his own place in history as it was of any political views. Madman? Potato/potato....

As for the thriller-y aspirations of Killing Lincoln, the film shows the strain of futile effort, with Hanks’ solemn narration trying in vain to drum up the tension that the docudrama choppiness undermines at every step. It’s especially ineffective to have Hanks play doomsday clock as the film progresses (Lincoln has X days to live! Then hours! Then...minutes!) When, after the assassination, Tom switches to “John Wilkes Booth has only twelve days to live!” the device is even more deflating- we’re simply not as invested the floridly grandiloquent Booth’s fate after he’s done his bloody deed. (Hanks’ commentary after the assassination amounts to little more than educational filmstrip narration as the pursuit of Booth and his conspirators dribbles out over Killing Lincoln’s last, increasingly dull half hour.)

Add to that the distractingly sloppy tendency of the film to dramatize what it admits are merely speculative incidents (The president “according to one account” has prophetic dreams about his murder! Booth may have drunk with Lincoln’s attendants right before the murder “although it will never be known with any certainty!”), and the educational value of Killing Lincoln gradually sinks to the same uninspired level as the purported drama. Far from being the rabble-rousing, controversial polemic one might have expected considering the source material, Killing Lincoln isn’t even bad enough to engender more than a shrug of recognition. Yup- Booth killed Lincoln. That happened.

Stray observations:

  • At one point, Hanks pronounces, “A man brought up on Shakespeare is brought to his knees by his own hubris.” Typical of Killing Lincoln’s half-thought glibness, this is just lazy writing. Booth accomplished his goal: The fact that he was going to be hunted down for killing the president can’t have been a surprise. And what the hell does Shakespeare have to do with it?

  • From the snippets we see, Our American Cousin does seem pretty bad. Lincoln died listening to puns? C'mon...

  • The actor playing conspirator Lewis Powell swiping with his dagger at William Seward and his family is clearly missing everyone by a country mile.

  • The controversy over inaccuracies in O’Reilly’s book (while completely justified and documented) seems a little picayune. The criticism from actual historians that it trucks in oversimplified psychological explanation, contrived melodrama, and wild, ill-documented conspiracy theories (which are left out of the film) seems more pertinent, though.

  • No, I have not read O’Reilly’s book. There was a time when I would have done so in the sense of fairness and balance, but as I’ve grown older, I’m more content with letting people I trust to take the bullet for me. So to speak.

  • And no, I haven’t seen Lincoln yet. That’s one’s just on me.

  • I leave you with political analysis more wise than any you’ll find in Killing Lincoln, from one of TV’s finest pundits: “Actually, today’s Republican party would be unrecognizable to Lincoln. He fought a war to preserve federal authority over the states. That’s not exactly small government.” I miss you, Dot Com.

More TV Club