With Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln still playing in theaters and among the favorites to win multiple Oscars, interest in the 16th American President is high. National Geographic Channel is capitalizing on that Lincoln-palooza with its first scripted drama, Killing Lincoln, which is set for a President’s Weekend premiere on Sunday at 8 p.m.
Narrated by Tom Hanks and based on the book of the same name by Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard, the movie traces the actions of assassin John Wilkes Booth in the days and weeks before and after the shooting at Ford’s Theatre on April 14, 1965. In recounting the three-pronged assassination plan put in place by Booth and his co-conspirators (who also attempted to kill Vice President Andrew Johnson and Secretary of State William Seward) the movie effectively illuminates the constant danger that hovered over Lincoln during his final months in office. The assassination was the fifth attempt to kidnap or kill the President during the final year of his life. One of the first scenes in the film shows Lincoln (Billy Campbell) riding a horse alone on a farm outside Washington, when a sniper’s bullet takes off his hat, narrowly missing his skull.
Campbell, 53, holds his own in the thankless position of being the first actor to take on the role of Lincoln since the magnificent Daniel Day-Lewis, who carries Spielberg’s film to heights that Killing Lincoln can’t possibly match. But this story is really a police procedural, following the bread crumbs that led Booth to Ford’s Theatre that fateful night. Newcomer Jesse Johnson is nicely menacing as Booth, and the movie, directed by Gettysburg’s Adrian Moat, looks great. Yet for all the star power Hanks’ narration lends it makes the movie’s flow more than a little bit choppy. Nat Geo is calling it a “scripted drama,” and it is, but the narration makes it play like an odd mash-up of a Ken Burns documentary and a period drama.
The public fascination with Lincoln seems nearly limitless — Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals, on which Spielberg’s film is partly based, is still on the New York Times bestseller list eight years after its publication. Killing Lincoln is currently among Amazon’s top 100 sellers. This adaptation may not captivate those familiar with its story, but it fits neatly into the Lincoln canon, and makes for worthwhile viewing on President’s Day eve.