FILM REVIEW: “Killing Lincoln”

Killing Lincoln (National Geographic, Scott Free Productions, 2013)

Starring: Billy Campbell, Jesse Johnson, Geraldine Hughes, Tom Hanks

Running Time: 120 Minutes (With Commercials)

Rating: TV-14 (Violence, Language)


It seems like the film and television projects pertaining to our 16th President continue to roll on. Last year, three films (Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, Abraham Lincoln versus Zombies, and the critically-acclaimed Steven Spielberg biopic) featuring Honest Abe were made. This year, we can look forward to two more: Saving Lincoln, which looks at Lincoln’s presidency from the eyes of bodyguard Ward Hill Lamon, and The Green Blade Rises, which looks at the President’s formative years. But outside of Spielberg’s film, possibly the one that has been discussed the most is the NatGeo documentary drama Killing Lincoln, which looks at the events surrounding the assassination of Lincoln, and the manhunt for his killer, acclaimed actor John Wilkes Booth. It is based on the bestselling book by Bill O’Reilly, and executive produced by O’Reilly, along with siblings Tony and Ridley Scott, and directed by Adrian Moat.

Now, I have not read O’Reilly’s book about the assassination, so I did not have that to compare to. However, I was a bit worried about the Scott Brothers, and Mr. Moat, being involved in the production. Back in the summer of 2011, the Scotts and Moat gave us the History Channel docudrama Gettysburg, which is one of the most horrendous excuses of a documentary ever produced. However, unlike the previous documentary, Killing Lincoln is actually a fairly good piece of historical docudrama.

Oscar-winning actor Tom Hanks serves as the host/narrator of the film. He helps guide the viewers through the story. Personally, you can never go wrong with having Tom Hanks involved in a historical production, as evidenced by the four historical miniseries that he executive produced for HBO. His narration is fantastic, and helps move the production along at a fairly steady pace. The only drawback is the Walt Disney mustache he sports (That’s no joke: He’s portraying Mr. Disney in a film that comes out later this year), but this is a small distraction.

As for the cast assembled to portray the historical figures, it’s somewhat hit-and-miss. Billy Campbell, famous for such movies as The Rocketeer, and who will next be seen in Ron Maxwell’s Copperhead, portrays Abraham Lincoln. He gives a solid performance, but when compared to other portrayals, his Lincoln seems a bit dull, and lacking some of the charisma that the President had. Still, his performance is not terrible, just not great. Geraldine Hughes, best-known for portraying Sylvester Stallone’s sort-of love interest in Rocky Balboa, gives a good performance as Mary Todd Lincoln. The scenes where she weeps at the sight of her dying husband are very touching, and Ms. Hughes makes you believe that she is in agony.

Probably the most disappointing performance in the piece comes from Jesse Johnson as John Wilkes Booth. Although the documentary points out that Booth was not a madman, Johnson’s performance comes off as exactly that. His Booth is theatrical throughout the piece, making you believe he was indeed insane, despite what the narration says. For me, it was just too difficult to believe he wasn’t a madman based on Johnson’s portrayal. Chris Conner’s portrayal in Gods and Generals is far more accurate, and more humanistic. The rest of the cast turn in solid performances.

As for the historical accuracy, the film succeeds overall. A few moments of poetic license are taken, especially during the assassination scene (Which is, despite the license, done very well). However, one must realize that this is a docudrama, and not a straight-up documentary. And unlike the Gettysburg documentary, the poetic license is not overdone. From a technical standpoint, the film looks and sounds amazing. Done on a budget of $2 Million, it certainly has the look of a big-budget production from Hollywood, and helps give it a very cinematic feel. The storytelling is somewhat slow at times, but is made up for by the solid casting, and Hanks’ narration.

Overall, Killing Lincoln is a flawed, but solid, docudrama looking at the assassination of President Lincoln, and the manhunt to find his killer. If you have an interest in Abraham Lincoln, and this period of American history, then you will enjoy the film. However, those uninterested in the subject will probably not find much to enjoy in this docudrama.

Grade: 7.5/10, or B


2 responses to “FILM REVIEW: “Killing Lincoln”

    • Mainly, some things done for dramatic effect. The prime example of this is when the camera is panning across the Presidential Box at Ford’s Theater, and reveals Booth standing in the back of the box, knife and gun in hand, then slowly walks up to Lincoln, and shoots him in the head. From historical accounts, Booth opened the door, walked up to the President, and shot him. No posing near a wall, just open, walk, point, and shoot. This was done mainly for dramatic effect.

      Secondly, Booth shouting “Sic Semper Tyrranis” twice is also a bit of poetic license. He apparently only shouted it once while in the box. Then, when he fell to the stage and got up, yelled “The South is avenged!” So, this has some poetic license to it as well.

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