In Na­tional Ge­o­graphic’s “Killing Lin­coln,” the he facts are cor­rect, but tone is all wrong.

The Washington Post Sunday - - SUNDAY STYLE - stuev­erh@wash­

illing Lin­coln” — over and over it seems. Here is our fa­vorite na­tional as­sas­si­na­tion nar­ra­tive for the mil­lionth time, told this time in tick-tock for­mat, day by day, moment to moment, nar­rated by Tom Hanks, in­spired by the best-sell­ing prose of that metic­u­lous his­to­rian Bill O’Reilly. In ways that are some­times mes­mer­iz­ing and yet ag­o­niz­ingly triv­ial, all roads lead to Ford’s The­atre, where, on a Fri­day night in April 1865, our 16th pres­i­dent chuck­les at the light com­edy called “Our Amer­i­can Cousin.” There, of course, a shot rings out from the box seats that are draped in pa­tri­otic bunting; a killer leaps from the bal­cony with wild-eyed re­solve. We have all killed Lin­coln once more.

The ex­pe­ri­ence of watch­ing the Na­tional Ge­o­graphic Chan­nel’s am­bi­tious but strange docu-drama, air­ing Sun­day night, is a lit­tle like those con­ver­sa­tions you some­times over­hear when wan­der­ing among the tourists on the Mall or in front of

‘Killing Lin­coln’ is an am­bi­tious but strange


Ford’s on 10th Street NW. There is al­ways a man — some­one’s dad or high school field trip chap­er­one — who is talk­ing a lit­tle too loudly, too au­thor­i­ta­tively about the sweep and sig­nif­i­cance of his­tory. His facts are cor­rect (or cor­rect enough), but his tone is all wrong. His dra­matic pauses are too te­dious. His voice echoes off the mar­ble in a cer­tain way, and he loves it. The teenagers roll their eyes.

Even when that man’s voice be­longs to Hanks, the gravitas is a lit­tle much to take. “Killing Lin­coln” at first seems like those doc­u­men­taries that make fre­quent and cheesy use of reen­act­ment, but in­stead it takes the reen­act­ment into the realm of full-fledged cin­ema. Billy

Camp­bell (“The Killing,” “Once and Again”) stars as Pres­i­dent Abra­ham Lin­coln, play­ing the part with the du­ti­ful, whiskery dread of a man who knows that Daniel Day-Lewis is busy rais­ing the bar im­pos­si­bly high in Steven Spiel­berg’s “Lin­coln.”

Com­par­ing the two projects (and the two Abes) is wildly un­fair, but un­avoid­able. Spiel­berg’s film is a rous­ingly am­pli­fied drama about amend­ing the Con­sti­tu­tion, us­ing the as­sas­si­na­tion as a tragic epi­logue. “Killing Lin­coln,” as the ti­tle plainly states (and read­ers of O’Reilly’s book know), is about all the lit­tle de­tails of a com­pli­cated as­sas­si­na­tion plot meant to reignite the Civil War.

“Lin­coln” el­e­vates our core ideals to the heavens, end­ing on ele­giac note. “Killing Lin­coln” seems mainly de­ter­mined to re-juice a tragic event. Is “Killing Lin­coln” look­ing for mean­ing? Is it look­ing for fresh ev­i­dence? Is it try­ing to tell us some­thing it thinks we don’t al­ready know? Not really. It’s just fas­ci­nated by a crime — it’s the “CSI” episode for peo­ple who found “Lin­coln” much too hard to fol­low.

“Killing Lin­coln” is also sad­dled with clunky writ­ing, mostly in the nar­ra­tion. As the pres­i­dent tours the sur­ren­dered city of Rich­mond and shows his son Tad the desk “where Mr. [Jef­fer­son] Davis con­ducted his war,” Hanks’s voice leaps in with one of many foot­noted asides that are meant, I sup­pose, to lend the en­ter­prise an over­rid­ing air of co­in­ci­dence and/or irony: Jef­fer­son Davis “will die 24 years later at the age of 81,” Hanks says. “But Abra­ham Lin­coln has less than 11 days to live.”

And on it goes, th­ese con­stant re­minders of who has how many days (hours, min­utes) of re­main­ing life. Camp­bell wisely reaches for sim­ple states­man­ship, while his co-star Jesse John­son howls at the moon as John Wilkes Booth, the ac­tor turned rad­i­cal hot­head. John­son takes ev­ery op­por­tu­nity to over­play the part, but, in do­ing so, per­haps ar­rives at some loony truth about what Booth might have been like in the days lead­ing up to and fol­low­ing the as­sas­si­na­tion. We are to un­der­stand that he was an in­suf­fer­able wacko.

Only when it has 20 min­utes left to live does “Killing Lin­coln” knock it off with the hokey struc­ture and melo­drama and let the story it­self take charge. Its re-cre­ation of the night of April 14 (and the fol­low­ing mourn­ful morn­ing) fi­nally be­gins to feel like some­thing we rec­og­nize: a thriller.

The rest feels like a strange mul­ti­me­dia pre­sen­ta­tion des­per­ate to in­ter­est view­ers in some­thing that is, on its own and un­em­bel­lished, plenty in­ter­est­ing enough. Cer­tain his­tory teach­ers will love “Killing Lin­coln.” Amid his­tory’s thun­der­ous echoes, you can hear the squeaky wheels of an AV cart be­ing wheeled into the class­room.


A STRANGE DOCU-DRAMA: Billy Camp­bell, top, por­trays Pres­i­dent Abra­ham Lin­coln in the tele­vi­sion film “Killing Lin­coln.” Above, Mary Todd Lin­coln (Geral­dine Hughes) and Lin­coln at Ford’s The­atre be­fore he is shot by John Wilkes Booth (Jesse John­son), left.

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