America's fascination with Abraham Lincoln seems nearly limitless--Steven Spielberg's "Lincoln" is an Oscar favorite, Doris Kearns Goodwin's 2005 book "Team of Rivals," on which Spielberg's film is partly based, remains on the New York Times bestseller list, where Bill O'Reilly's "Killing Lincoln" is currently No. 8.
So it's no surprise that National Geographic Channel would choose the 16th president and his assassin, John Wilkes Booth, as the subjects of what it calls its first scripted drama. Based on the book by O'Reilly (yes, that Bill O'Reilly) and Martin Dugard, "Killing Lincoln" (7 p.m. Feb. 17, Nat Geo; 3 stars out of 4) is really a mash-up of a documentary and a period drama.
Tom Hanks narrates the docu-drama, appearing on screen to give us the blow-by-blow of events leading up to and after Booth's attack at Ford's Theatre on April 14, 1865. Booth and his co-conspirators planned to kill Vice President Andrew Johnson and Secretary of State William Seward, and the movie illuminates a lot of details that often have been glossed over. (Then again, maybe I wasn't paying close enough attention in history classes.)
As fascinating as the minutiae are, fine work by the cast makes me wish this had been a fully scripted miniseries.
Billy Campbell holds his own in the thankless position of playing Lincoln after Daniel Day-Lewis's lauded performance in "Lincoln." His Abe is a man put on a brave face despite being tortured by premonitions of an early death that were fueled by four previous attempts to kidnap or kill him in the final year of his life.
Jesse Johnson plays Booth not as the bloodthirsty lunatic he's been made out to be, but as a larger-than-life, immensely popular stage actor. Booth truly believed that his murder of the "malignant tyrant" Lincoln would solve America's problems, and was woefully disappointed in the days after the assassination to learn he created a martyr instead.
The format of "Killing Lincoln" might be choppy, but it does convey Lincoln's private anguish over his position as possibly the most hated man in America--at least until Booth took the title by killing him.
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