Jesse Johnson stars as John Wilkes Booth in "Killing Lincoln." (National Geographic )
On networks with historical bents, there is always a fair amount of Lincoln-mania this time of year — PBS' "American Experience" just repeated its excellent miniseries "Abraham and Mary Lincoln: A House Divided," — and what with Steven Spielberg's big screen "Lincoln" steadily amassing statuary, it's safe to say, things have reached a fever pitch, putting us well into the counterintuitive stage, i.e., let's have a look at the other guy.
"Killing Lincoln," a docu-drama that focuses on John Wilkes Booth and the conspiracy that led to the 16th president's murder, is billed as a "two-hour global event," produced by Ridley and the late Tony Scott from the bestselling book by Bill O'Reilly and Martin Dugard. It is narrated by Tom Hanks, and stars Billy Campbell ("The Killing") as Lincoln and Jesse Johnson, the son of actor Don Johnson, as Booth.
But if the pedigree shouts "HBO," the execution is pure National Geographic Channel, on which it premieres Sunday night. Fastidiously researched down to the arrangement of household items in certain scenes, "Killing Lincoln" wears its historical accuracy like a ball and chain, clunking where it should inspire, dragging where it should pulse with dread. It grows quickly tedious, which is, in itself, an achievement considering the subject matter.
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As in O'Reilly's book, the aim here is to flesh out Booth, who, Hanks informs us early on, has too often been "reduced by history to a two-dimensional scoundrel and dismissed as a madman." Two hours later, it is still difficult to consider him as much else.
We "learn" that he was an admired actor and zealous supporter of Southern rights. After shopping around for a way to end Lincoln's government, he came up with one of his own — abduct Lincoln, Vice President Andrew Johnson and Secretary of State William Seward. But abduction soon gave way to assassination, though in the end, only Lincoln was killed.
A fine 2007 History channel documentary, "The Hunt for John Wilkes Booth," covered similar ground with far greater detail. As adapted by Erik Jendresen ("Band of Brothers"), O'Reilly's take offers no real insight into Booth as a man, beyond the fact that he was an actor and given to dramatic flourishes.
At more than a few points, Johnson's performance falls into pure hokum. Making his way to the balcony of Ford's Theatre, Johnson seems looks more like Snidely Whiplash than a well-known performer of his time.
But Johnson is certainly not to blame for the film's camp factor. Having decided to bypass the customary documentary insertion of scholars and experts, the creators rely instead on Hanks to provide the narrative bridge between re-enactment scenes.
Hanks is a fine and able narrator but this puts an enormous amount of pressure on those scenes — pressure increased all the more by the decision to use only dialogue culled from historical documents. Re-enactment scenes, with their tableaux rigidity, are difficult enough, but with actors speaking lines drawn from letters, diaries and other documents, woodenness is all but guaranteed.
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Campbell is also a solid performer. But here his attempts to imbue every blessed moment with Tragic Historical Significance are as obvious as his Bela Lugosi eye shadow.
Neither does it help, in any way, to have Hanks constantly intone an assassination countdown: "Lincoln has 16 days to live," "He has 10 days to live," "The president has four days to live," and then, hilariously, "John Wilkes Booth has 12 days to live." It's like they want to turn their documentary into a drinking game.
Lincoln's life, and death, remain the Great American Epic, a tale oft-told in varied ways. But at this point, those seeking to add their voices must not only mark up to the stature of their subject, they must at least come close to the quality of previous versions. "Killing Lincoln" does neither.
When: 8 and 10 p.m. Sunday
Rating: TV-14-LV (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14 with advisories for coarse language and violence)
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