‘Killing Lincoln’ Review

Published 2 years ago by , Updated February 17th, 2013 at 4:26 pm,

Jesse Johnson and Billy Campbell in Killing Lincoln Killing Lincoln Review

Unlike History channel, which recently took a great leap forward in creating its own line up of scripted programs by bringing in the multiple award-winning miniseries ‘Hatfields & McCoys‘ and the upcoming dramatic series ‘Vikings,’ National Geographic Channel has taken a slightly more cinematic approach to the kind of original content it has chosen to air.

Late last year came the television event ‘SEAL Team Six: The Raid on Osama Bin Laden,’ which told the story of the campaign to kill Osama Bin Laden by retracing the footsteps of the operation and attempting to fill in some of the blanks, as far as what the actual SEALs might be like. That was, for all intents and purposes, a made-for-television movie featuring some recognizable faces such as Hell on WheelsAnson Mount, William Fichtner (The Dark Knight), Freddy Rodriguez (Grindhouse) and Kathleen Robertson – in a role that apparently afforded the actress the opportunity to reuse her entire wardrobe from Boss.

Now, with Killing Lincoln, National Geographic Channel is trying something altogether different with its ambitious retelling of the assassination of the 16th President of the United States. The two-hour event counts down the last days of Lincoln’s life in a sometimes-meticulous fashion, focusing as much on minutia as it does the major events that brought Abraham Lincoln to Ford’s Theater to watch Our American Cousin on that fateful April night in 1865.

Billy Campbell in Killing Lincoln Killing Lincoln Review

Produced by Ridley and the late Tony Scott, narrated by Tom Hanks and featuring dramatic elements pulled from the pages of the best-selling work by Bill O’Reilly (yes, that Bill O’Reilly) and Martin Dugard, NatGeo attempts to push the television documentary’s common use of dramatic reenactments into the more sophisticated territory of cinema, with interesting, if not entirely successful results.

The cause-and-effect examination of the actions taken by Lincoln and his assassin, John Wilkes Booth, prior to their meeting, does without the usual insertion of intellectual figures or individuals who are otherwise experts on the subject, and instead relies on actors reading their lines from historical documents, diaries and letters. After Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, one almost pities the actor who attempts to tackle the role so soon after Daniel Day Lewis’ highly acclaimed turn as Abraham Lincoln. To his credit, though, Billy Campbell (The Killing) puts on a fine performance; his rendition is quiet, straightforward and unembellished with spectacular character flourishes or hints of showiness; it’s as if he chose instead to step aside, tip his stovepipe hat and grant Daniel Day Lewis the right-of-way on the grounds of some unspoken rule of the actors’ code.

The same can’t be said for Jesse Johnson’s portrayal of John Wilkes Booth, however. Gleefully bellowing grandiose lines like “I stand with Brutus” and “Sic semper tyrannis,” Johnson’s characterization of the actor-turned-assassin causes this simple docudrama to bulge at the seams, nearly upsetting the balance created by the otherwise understated readings of Campbell and Hanks. And while Hanks informs the audience that history has reduced Booth “to a two-dimensional scoundrel,” that he has been “dismissed as a madman,” the narrative unfortunately offers little evidence to convince the viewer otherwise. Instead, Killing Lincoln presents a Booth who, in the days leading up to and those directly following the assassination, was little more than an ostentatious kook – practically insisting that history’s reduction of the man was right on the money.

Jesse Johnson as John Wilkes Booth in Killing Lincoln Killing Lincoln Review

For his part, Hanks is there to speak in a balmy voice and grant the docudrama its venerable presence and calmly provide a series of asides, which form the connective tissue keeping the dramatic reenactments from feeling too disjointed. He regularly checks in with information intended to sketch a clearer portrait of the president and his killer, and to provide reminders on how much time various individuals have left. “Lincoln has 16 days to live,” Hanks says. Then, minutes later, “Abraham Lincoln has less than 11 days to live,” and so on, before making the awkward transition to “John Wilkes Booth has 12 days to live.”

If anything, Killing Lincoln certainly lives up to its title. The reenactments rapidly count down the end of two men’s lives, where circumstances involving Secretary of State William Seward seem to put Lincoln directly in harm’s way, while Booth’s plans for abducting the president soon shift to a more murderous route. The meat of the story comes from the examination of the crime, as if it is reminding the viewers that Abraham Lincoln was assassinated, and, for those who hadn’t paid attention in school, this was how it happened. For all outwardly appearances of being filmic, or that it would offer a cinematic retelling of a tragic event, Killing Lincoln is really just streamlining information.

Geraldine Huges and Billy Campbell in Killing Lincoln Killing Lincoln Review

And much of that information comes in the last half hour or so, when the direction begins to shift from the rigid presentation of facts about Lincoln and Booth to personal details about the men who were the first to take charge after Lincoln had been shot. At first, the knowledge that the stenographer recording the eye-witness accounts had lost both legs fighting in the Civil War, or that the autopsy photo of Booth has never been found feel somewhat inconsequential – but when dealing with an event as familiar and picked over by historians as this, it is often those minute details that stand out the most.

It may be rough around the edges at times but Killing Lincoln will likely charm history buffs, and it may even offer a few nuggets of new information surrounding the tragedy that was the first assassination of an American president.


Killing Lincoln airs February 17 @8pm on The National Geographic Channel.

Get our free email alerts on the topics and author of this article:


Post a Comment

GravatarWant to change your avatar?
Go to Gravatar.com and upload your own (we'll wait)!

 Rules: No profanity or personal attacks.
 Use a valid email address or risk being banned from commenting.

If your comment doesn't show up immediately, it may have been flagged for moderation. Please try refreshing the page first, then drop us a note and we'll retrieve it. Keep in mind that we do not allow external links in the comments.

  1. I’ll watch, because I’m a history buff but I’m not expecting to learn anything I didn’t already know.
    I’m still hoping a feature movie is made of the entire plot and 12 days after the assassination. I read a book a while back titled “Manhunt” (I forget the author) and it was a fascinating read. Im guessing this will cover a lot of that info but like I said earlier I want a full feature in cinemas.

    • James Swanson was the author. An excellent book.

      I liked the SEAL Team Six movie referenced in the article & Billy Campbell is always worth checking out. Looks like another title for the que.

  2. You mean it wasn’t vampires that killed him?

    Just kidding. Very erudite and well-written review.

  3. To the author…was the show produced by “that” Ridley and Tony Scott and narrated by “that” Tom Hanks? You were specific about one individual, why not the rest?

  4. The book, Killing Lincoln, by O’Reilly has been banned by the bookstore at the Lincoln Museum in Springfield, Illinois. It has also been banned by the Ford’s Theater Bookstore. Both found O’Reilly’s book rife with inaccuracies.

    • Apparently, National Geographic did not find the book “rife with inaccuraries”, nor have countless other bookstores thoughout the country.

      • Thank you! History has always had the same problem that current story telling has. Start a story in a room with 30 people whispering the tale to each other and then see how it comes out on the back end. The written reports are obviously the best means of tracing.

    • If “Killing Lincoln” is inaccurate and banned by various book stores, where is the documentation that illustrates these claims. Killing Lincoln is one of the best-sellers ever on the NY Times Best Seller list. I saw the docu-drama last night and found it very good. I also saw Lincoln in the theater and gave it a standing-O. Both movies were very authentic and well produced. I am a Civil War buff and find most of Lincoln’s facts to be consistent to historical accounts by most writers. Whether JWB history is suspect, that remains to be seen. Kudos to “Killing Lincoln”!

      • Just because something was a best seller does not mean it is good. Even the Twilight series was best selling. There are plenty of fake history books that are best sellers.

        • And I could be incorrect, but it sounds like you are coming from a certain perspective yourself, so in response…just because something is written by Bill O’Reilly does not mean it is bad. In fact, the probability is that it is good.

  5. Is it coming back on

  6. I saw it. Thought it was great! Well done on all fronts!

  7. This was a good movie

  8. I thought the film portrayed Booth in a more sympathetic light than I’d seen before. He seemed to me more like a patriot than a kook. There are still people in the South who think Lincoln was “bad” for the country, and the Booth character seems to speak for them.

    • All of history is, in a sense, a matter of perspective. Booth was not an out-of-control nut…he was simply, and tragically, wrong in his thinking.

  9. I noticed you said “dramatic elements” were taken from O’Reilly’s book…Does that mean informational (factual?) elements were taken from OTHER sources?

    • Funny, how it appears to bother some people that Billy O’Reilly wrote the book. Must really agitate them to know that he has the most watched news program on cable television. I suppose they protect their arrogance and egos by demonizing and ridiculing the man. That is the common tool of the left.

      • Actually, that is a common tool of BOTH sides of the political spectrum. In any case, I was not using any “tools”…I was simply wondering why the article specified DRAMATIC elements from his book, as opposed to simply ELEMENTS. You did the exact same thing with your above question about the singular use of “that”. As for the part of my comment on which I’m betting you were focusing, you’ll notice I put a “?” after the word FACTUAL. I wasn’t stating an opinion; I was asking if there was an implication in the article’s word choice.

        • And if you reread my comments, you’ll notice that I wasn’t accusing you of anything. Guilty conscience? :)

          • Nope…but you did respond under my specific comment, so I think I came to a fair conclusion that you were responding to me.

            If I was incorrect, then, no harm, no foul. ;)

            • No harm, no foul, friend, even when we may differ in opinion about something.

      • Even Honey boo boo and Kim kardashians have plenty of viewers that does not mean it’s a good program. It just means there are morons that watch stupid shows. Bill O’Reilly is just a moron with an stone age view of how the world works, just all the other morons working at fox news and the people that watch that network.

  10. THANK you! This is so much more appropriate a review than one I just read by another reviewer. She obviously is not a real reviewer, she just has different politics than Bill and that got in the way of her honest commentary.

  11. Listen, O’Reillys book is just a copy of “Manhunt” written by Swanson. It’s almost as if he read the book himself and simply tried to re-write the same one. His book didn’t impress me. The book “Manhunt”..did. You want an incredible book to read… read that one..Manhunt.

    • I agree, Manhunt is a magnificent narrative, but it is solely about John Wilkes Booth’s escape.

      I highly encourage everyone to read Manhunt. It will get you into the mind to understand who John Wilkes Booth was.

    • I agree with you about the book Manhunt. I really enjoyed that book and felt this one was a retelling. It bothered me that in the film of Killing Lincoln, they kept reminding us that although this film was made quickly that great effort was taken for authenticity.

  12. While I enjoyed Killing Lincoln, I found the acting and overall quality of The Day Lincoln was Shot (1988) to be superior. The depictions of both Lincoln and Booth were adequate in this most recent production, they do not compare to those of the former. Both films to have their strengths and weaknesses and further add more discussion to a spectacular yet tragic event.

  13. So, I recorded this Sunday and was excited to watch it last night and I thought it was terrible.
    I thought we were going to see an actual “movie” not another montage of clips with a talking head in between. The only difference between this and something we’ve seen on The History Channel for the past 25 years was Tom Hanks.

  14. I just watched it and I thought it was excellent. Kinda makes a good companion piece to Lincoln. All in all I recommend it.

  15. I am a hardcore liberal and I despise Bill O’Reilly’s political beliefs. But I admire his interest in history. I haven’t read KILLING LINCOLN but thoroughly enjoyed this movie and was surprised at the intricate details I had never known before, such as the address of Asia Booth in Philadelphia, (there’s a Chinese restaurant I dined at last week currently standing on that spot!) to the missing plate of his autopsy photo.

    I’ve heard the book was riddled with inaccuracies, but this movie seemed to be a very accurate.

    Jesse Johnson was terrific ass Booth.

    The good thing is that as historically compelling and broad as this docu-drama is, there is so much more to know about the Lincoln Assassination. I highly encourage people to learn more about this. I actually work in a building that was once owned by Edwin Booth so I have a draw to this subject that compels me to learn more about the subject.

  16. excellent and not boring. didn’t know Bill O’Reilly had it in him to write good stuff.

  17. It’s a pity you don’t have a donate button! I’d certainly donate to

    this excellent blog! I suppose for now i’ll settle for

    bookmarking and adding your RSS feed to my Google account.

    I look forward to brand new updates and will share this site with
    my Facebook group. Chat soon!

  18. Great – I should definitely pronounce, impressed with your
    web site. I had no trouble

    navigating through all tabs as well as related information ended up
    being truly simple to do

    to access. I recently found what I hoped for before you know it
    at all. Quite unusual. Is

    likely to appreciate it for those who add forums or anything, web site
    theme . a tones way for

    your client to communicate. Nice task..