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Killing Lincoln: TV Review

Killing Lincoln Still - H 2013

The Bottom Line

If you see only one movie about Abraham Lincoln this year ... make it the other one.

Airdate

8 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 17 (National Geographic Channel)

Cast

Billy Campbell, Jesse Johnson

Despite narration by Tom Hanks, National Geographic Channel’s first scripted drama is seriously overshadowed by its big-screen competition.

It certainly doesn’t help National Geographic Channel that a famous director, a brilliant historian and a superb screenwriter decided to make a little film about Abraham Lincoln and have it burst onto the scene months before the channel airs its first scripted movie ...

... about Abraham Lincoln.

Killing Lincoln is a docudrama narrated by Tom Hanks, executive produced by Ridley Scott and his late brother Tony and written by Erik Jendresen (Band of Brothers), based on Bill O’Reilly’s book.

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However, not only does the film pale severely in the face of Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, but also it can’t measure up to many of the historical dramas shown through the years on HBO and Showtime.

The structure of Killing Lincoln works against it. The film stars Billy Campbell as Lincoln and Jesse Johnson as John Wilkes Booth, with Hanks appearing nearly as often as the on-camera narrator. Hanks’ stentorian delivery and dramatic chops help keep Killing Lincoln nailed to the ground -- where it otherwise might seem too slight to keep in place.

Much of the history is spoken, not seen, and though Campbell does the best he can with his role, the docudrama seems thin and disconnected -- as if the scripted, acted parts are merely in service of Hanks’ narration. This doesn’t allow the characters, events or even the sense of place to be fully realized.

A bigger problem might have been in the direction given Johnson on how to play Booth, a trained actor and a man Killing Lincoln states is more than the two-dimensional person portrayed in history -- though it does little to make him seem more than that.

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Johnson plays Booth in a manner far too broad to be taken seriously. It’s as if he’s trying to do a dramatic reading of how Booth the actor might grandiosely say the words as put into his mouth in this film. That is, if we’re to view Booth as a man who spoke like he was onstage no matter what situation he was in -- plotting Lincoln’s death, picking up his mail, reading his own letters out loud -- then we get all too well he’s a misguided, delusional blowhard. If, however, that wasn’t the intent, someone needed to ratchet Johnson back and have him play the role with a less flowery flourish. It’s like he’s impersonating The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show’s Snidely Whiplash, twisting his mustache while plotting to tie Lincoln to the railroad tracks.

The other structure that crumbles is a narrative device wherein Hanks must repeat such lines as, “Lincoln has 12 days to live.” Or, “Lincoln has four days to live.” Or, “Booth will be dead in 10 days.” This running timeline is littered throughout Killing Lincoln and doesn’t make it more dramatic, only more obvious in its desperation to be dramatic.

Ultimately, Killing Lincoln is 90 minutes of bad timing.

Email: Tim.Goodman@THR.com