This film adaptation of Bill O'Reilly's novel "Killing Lincoln" originally aired on the National Geographic Channel, which partially explains why it struggles to find a consistent tone. On one hand, Killing Lincoln is a historical drama that plays very much like a theatrical film. The other involves clumsy, story-moving narration from Tom Hanks, some of which is delivered in cheesy cut-away sequences. Killing Lincoln serves up more cheese than its narration, and many of the "shocking" revelations about John Wilkes Booth are delivered in a manner that suggests parody. I expected more from producers Ridley Scott and the late Tony Scott; Killing Lincoln is neither particularly interesting nor very accomplished. O'Reilly's source novel isn't the problem, but I suspect a rushed, low-budget production may have cooked this goose.
O'Reilly, best known for his political commentary on Fox News, wrote in 2011 a novel about the 1865 assassination of U.S. President Abraham Lincoln by John Wilkes Booth. O'Reilly's well-received novel places readers alongside the sixteenth president during his last days on earth, and O'Reilly did a fair bit of research on the events and people surrounding the assassination. That Killing Lincoln premiered less than two years after the book's release reveals how rushed the production must have been. Working from an underwhelming script by Erik Jendresen, director Adrian Moat attempts to infuse tension into the proceedings by filming Lincoln's last days like a race-against-the-clock period piece. This might have worked had the script allowed the drama to speak for itself. Unfortunately, Killing Lincoln uses Hanks' narration as a crutch, limping from event to event by telling the viewer what they are seeing.
Billy Campbell is a sturdy, forgettable Lincoln, and Killing Lincoln has the president move from one Cabinet meeting to the next without much personality or drive. Jesse Johnson plays Booth as unhinged and angry at the direction his country is moving, and the performance, which is full of delirious, Nic Cage-style craziness, is anything but subtle. The film depicts the goings-on in the quickly converging lives of Lincoln and Booth. Killing Lincoln touches on General Robert E. Lee's surrender to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox, as well as Lincoln's family life and work duties. Booth continues his work as a stage actor while plotting with others to kidnap Lincoln before ultimately deciding that the president and others in his administration must die. Throughout these scenes Hanks reminds the audience how many days Lincoln has left on his clock.
There was some controversy about O'Reilly's depiction of the events surrounding the assassination, particularly how he depicts Mary Surratt, a conspirator in the assassination and the first woman executed by the United States federal government, during her imprisonment. This isn't shown in the film, and Hanks interjects several times that "the ultimate truth" about certain events may never be known. Killing Lincoln touches on the work of Booth's co-conspirators, Lewis Powell and David Herold, and their attempts to assassinate Secretary of State William H. Seward, but mostly focuses on Booth's work at Ford's Theatre and the aftermath. Killing Lincoln didn't show me anything new - truthful or otherwise - about the assassination, and the emotion it triggered was boredom. The awkward mix of drama and narration is off-putting. Simply surrounding Hanks with period props doesn't make his fact-packed ramblings any less awkward. Killing Lincoln has a couple of decent moments but is amateurish as a whole.
The 1.78:1/1080p/AVC-encoded image is acceptable but kind of lifeless. The film has a dull appearance, with desaturated colors, nondescript scenery and dark costumes, and the digital source causes the highlights to blow out in outdoor scenes. Detail is average, and the film has a somewhat soft, flat appearance throughout. Black levels are fine with some minor crush, but nighttime scenes do exhibit a considerable amount of noise.
The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack is mostly front-loaded but is fairly impressive for a made-for-television production. Dialogue is crystal clear and balanced appropriately with effects and score. Ambient and action effects do occasionally make use of the surround speakers, and the LFE responds when necessary. English SDH, Spanish and French subtitles are available.
Fox provides both iTunes-compatible and UltraViolet digital copies of Killing Lincoln. Extras include a straightforward Commentary featuring Executive Producer and Screenwriter Erik Jendresen and An Interview with Bill O'Reilly (5:04/HD) in which he discusses his novel. Uncovering the Truth: The Making of Killing Lincoln (22:22/HD) provides background information on the project, but Lincoln in Virginia (0:17/HD) is nothing more than a television commercial for Virginia tourism. Finally, under Promotional Features (10:26 total/HD) you can watch several short segments, including "Becoming Booth," "Becoming Lincoln," "Playing Mary Todd," "Directing a New Lincoln Story" and "Killing Lincoln Preview."
Awkwardly mixing filmed drama and documentary-style narration, Killing Lincoln is a disappointingly disjointed adaptation of Bill O'Reilly's novel about the 1865 assassination of U.S. President Abraham Lincoln. Tom Hanks' narration is relied upon heavily to move the plot forward, and the film insists on telling the viewer what is important rather than showing them. The acting is mediocre, as are the production values, and Killing Lincoln is neither especially entertaining nor informative. Skip It.
William lives in Raleigh, North Carolina, and looks forward to a Friday-afternoon matinee.