A fascinating, sometimes frustrating, factoid-packed mixture of history and drama, Killing Lincoln is a two-hour TV movie based on Bill O’Reilly’s best-selling book of the same name. Narrated by a frequently onscreen Tom Hanks, this production ranks as one of the more eccentric items of the year thus far.
O’Reilly’s book is a chronological walk-through — or a ”tick-tock” narrative, as they like to call it in the news biz — of the days leading up to and following Abraham Lincoln’s assassination by the stage actor John Wilkes Booth. In order to synopsize the book’s cascade of details for the film, Hanks turns up to summarize and deliver dates and times. This thing ring-a-ding-dings with authenticity — Killing Lincoln, directed by Adrian Moat, is a well-oiled machine of melodrama. Billy Campbell plays Lincoln with a muffled, halting quality, as though he felt the weight of presidential greatness a tad oppressive. (And while Geraldine Hughes does a good job as Mary Todd Lincoln, I wish producers had thought to entice Campbell’s Once and Again costar Sela Ward to portray Lincoln’s wife — Ward does mad grief so well.) In contrast to Campbell’s acting choices, Jesse Johnson seizes upon the notion of Booth as a showboater. At first I thought Johnson was overdoing it until I realized this was his take on Booth — Johnson renders the egotism that twisted into murderous messianism. The most fully fleshed-out performance may be the one by Graham Beckel as Secretary of War Edwin Stanton. In a matter of a few scenes, Beckel gives Stanton a worried urgency that illuminates a historical figure who is caught in a period when the world around him is changing constantly.
Much of the time, this production plays out like an educational-film reenactment instead of a big-budget film — for that, you’ll have to go to a movie theater for Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, which chronicles a different slice of Honest Abe’s life. Killing Lincoln is most effective in conveying just how determined Booth was — the man ultimately plotted nothing less than a triple murder, as Vice President Andrew Johnson and Secretary of State William Seward were also targeted. In killing the president whom he saw as ”a malignant tyrant,” Booth turned himself into a better villain than he could ever have portrayed on a stage. B