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 Wheels‘ Anson 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.
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figures or individuals who are otherwise experts on the subject, and instead relies on actors reading their lines from historical documents, diaries and letters.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.
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.
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.