The Villain Who Needs No Introduction has a B-Movie Sneer in 'Killing Lincoln'

John Wilkes Booth is a 19th-century Snidely Whiplash, here, just one step away from wringing his hands together and cackling.

Killing Lincoln

Airtime: Sunday, 8pm ET
Cast: Billy Campbell, Jesse Johnson, Tom Hanks, Geraldine Hughes, Brett Dalton
Network: National Geographic Channel
Director: Adrian Moat
Air date: 2013-02-17

National Geographic's Killing Lincoln has the look of a low-budget, filmed stage play. The actors emote in front of sparse, foggy sets, confined in tight shots. The effects isn't helped by the contrast offered by a few well-lit or wide shots, enhanced by CGI, which only underline the show's unevenness.

That's not to say such unevenness is the consequence of a low budget or even a rushed production. Some programs find advantages in small budgets, say, BBC Television Shakespeare back in the 1970s and '80s, bolstered by fine actors like Anthony Quayle and Ron Cook and, of course, strong source material and scripts. Killing Lincoln, by contrast, finds no such advantage, casting its performers adrift with a weak screenplay based on Bill O'Reilly's 2011 book. To be fair, no one claims Killing Lincoln is Shakespeare. But its patent lack of seriousness is surprising, given that it was executive produced by Ridley and Tony Scott, narrated by Tom Hanks, and scripted by Band of Brothers writer Erik Jendresen.

That lack of seriousness is visible in the first frames. John Wilkes Booth (the villain who needs no introduction, here played by Jesse Johnson) appears initially in a dim, unfocused shot as he flicks a finger along the brim of his black hat. With a B-Movie sneer, he lurches toward the president's box in Ford Theater. Booth here is a 19th-century Snidely Whiplash, one step away from wringing his hands together and cackling. When the show cuts back in time to the crime's planning, he barks at his co-conspirators, “We will be hailed as heroes!”, lighting his cigar and dropping the match into a small (and unexplained) pile of gunpowder to produce a minor explosion.

Such drama undermines the narration's efforts to present a reasonable portrait of a “passionate and well admired man” who was “reduced by history to a two-dimensional scoundrel and dismissed as a madman.” It's difficult to believe such description when Booth repeatedly looks both two-dimensional and mad, on and off stage. Whether Johnson is playing Booth as an over-actor or is himself inclined to melodrama is hard to know. When Hanks repeats the familiar story that Booth was “on the path to become one of the greatest actors of his time,” the movie again provides evidence to the contrary. Booth is shown on stage as an over-the-top Richard III, and his post-performance interaction with a fellow actor makes them look like they're in high school drama club.

If Booth looks foolish, Lincoln (played by the capable, if apparently sleepy, Billy Campbell) looks sympathetic and subtle. When, late in the show, the president tours destroyed Southern cities, he's approached by grateful, newly freed slaves in a rare daylight scene. It's an image that might have been sentimental or overstated, if not offensive, but here, as the wide shot dissolves to Lincoln's somber, pained face, the close-up is actually effective, suggesting the complexity of this particular white man's burden.

This and other moments invite us to admire Lincoln, to understand how, after his death, he was turned from a president who was “hated” by many into a “dearly beloved martyr." The Lincoln we see here is hated by the conspirators, certainly, but also, mostly, beloved -- and for good reason. He's a good father to his son Tad (Benjamin Perkinson), visits his secretary of state during an illness, and so gracious that he requests that the Confederate Anthem be played during the surrender of Robert E. Lee.

The lionizing of Lincoln goes on even when he's not on screen, most often when Hanks appears to speak his lines on camera, stiff in his movements and strangely too busy, handling props like Lincoln's top hat or Booth's diary. His visible discomfort matches the show's general awkwardness. It feels rushed, as if made to catch the 16th president's recent wave. Steven Spielberg's Lincoln is an Oscar contender and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is humorous escapist fare, popular enough to spawn its own “mockbuster” in the straight-to-video Abraham Lincoln vs Zombies. He was played by Kevin Sorbo in a 2012 TV movie called FDR: American Badass! and Honest Abe has made guest appearances Saturday Night Live and Parks and Recreation, as well as iCarly and a Ford Superbowl ad.

With all this interest in Lincoln, the time might seemed right for adapting O'Reilly's book, with all its attendant controversy. But the result is disappointing, sensationalistic and silly.


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