Movie Review: Killing Lincoln (2013)

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Some people were expecting the worst from National Geographic’s Killing Lincoln, for two reasons: Bill O’Reilly’s book of the same title was littered with inaccuracies, and the production team of Ridley and Tony Scott, along with director Adrian Moat, recently produced one of the most inept and historically insulting documentaries ever made, Gettysburg, back in 2011. Hosted and narrated by Tom Hanks, this is a docudrama which surpasses Gettysburg, distances itself slightly from the book, yet at the same time, does not adequately deliver the entertainment one would expect here, which I will address later. Billy Campbell, whose other Civil War-era film, Copperhead, is slated to be released in June, does a decent job as President Abraham Lincoln. It would be absolutely unfair to compare him to Daniel Day-Lewis, so on his own he is fine. The performance is very calm, quiet, and subdued and I have no problem with the voice he used, which is not accurately high-pitched, but also is not the typical Hollywood deep voice we have heard over the years. The production team used Campbell and his talents as best as they could. However, considering that this film is about killing Lincoln, and Lincoln dies just after the midway point, it did leave a lot to be desired.

In regards to John Wilkes Booth, portrayed by Jesse Johnson, I thought the narration to him was more than fair, noting how famous he was and how he was on the path to stardom. Some of the scenes early on show him performing Shakespeare (and also the inspiration Booth recieved from the role of Brutus, whom he once acted as), and the backstage moments with him reveal that is he actually a gentleman, but then it turns and becomes very dark. He is villainous, yes, but never portrayed as insane, something else popular culture has done over the years. Though a zealot, he speaks rationally and with purpose, which could make his performance all the more chilling. It did take me a while to warm up to Johnson’s portrayal, though, as I had a hard time listening to his voice, which I believe would be uncharacteristic of Booth in real life, if not just slightly annoying to the viewer in the present.

While the acting was decent, the scene everyone was looking forward to due to the absence of it in Lincoln, the assassination, was almost difficult to watch. For starters, while the camera pans the private box where Lincoln and his guests are, we can see Booth standing behind him, knife and gun raised, for a good five seconds, before he decides to pull the trigger. From what I always understood, Booth pushed open the door of the box, stepped up, fired the shot immediately, and then turned and stabbed Major Rathbone as he tried to tackle him. There was no dramatic pause, because it would have not been in Booth’s best interests to do so. The other major gripe I have with this scene is his repetition of the phrase, “Sic semper tyrannis!”, which he shouts right after shooting Lincoln and again when he jumps onto the stage. In real life, he shouted it only once, up in the box, and when he landed on the stage, he then yelled, “The south is avenged!”. This film totally omits that line all together. Lastly is the absence of any audience reaction when Lincoln was shot. There is almost a dead silence about, with the actors still carrying on their lines, even after a gunshot was heard. In fact, Booth is able to yell both of his lines and limp off the stage carrying a bloody knife with the audience still not realizing what had happened. It took Major Rathbone’s fiancée to stand up and yell something to the effect of, “He’s been shot!” for people to start screaming, and others rushing up to the box to help. At first, I thought there was something wrong with the audio on my television. It was just a brutal few minutes to watch, at the most climactic time, both historically and artistically. Side note: did I also see a doctor attempting to use CPR on Lincoln, a technique not used until the 1950’s?

That aside, the scenes leading up to the assassination were well-crafted, though I did feel as if I was watching a cheaper remake of the 1998 film The Day Lincoln was Shot. In addition, there is one major piece of film-making ability that Killing Lincoln totally lacked: an identity. The reason why television producers stick to either movies or documentaries is because docudramas are much more difficult to make, as well as hold the audience’s attention. This film never settles down into something, and is constantly switching between actual acting, narration over actors talking where you cannot hear them, and Tom Hanks hosting the show while sitting in a chair or standing—there is even a moment where he looks away from the camera completely, and then back again for no apparent reason. Please, just pick one! As a made-for-TV movie, it would have worked. As a documentary with no-name actors and voice-over narration, it would have worked. Certainly not all three. Hanks’ voice was perfect for narration, but the constant cuts back to him took away any momentum the film was beginning to gain. There was no need for this. Showing him at the beginning, maybe once in the middle, and again at the end, would have sufficed.

It is ironic that the scenes following the assassination, including that of the death of Booth, I found to be more historically accurate as well as entertaining than the rest, even if it was nearly identical to the 2007 documentary The Hunt for John Wilkes Booth. If there is one group of people who will truly love this film it is the people who are interested in the history of the camera, as photographer Alexander Gardner (Greg Cooper) is given ample screen-time, and it is duly noted how important the camera was to documenting the events that had just unfolded, something groundbreaking at the time.

My final numerical rating for Killing Lincoln will be a 6.5 out of 10. I went into this with incredibly low expectations, and found myself moderately surprised at the end result, even with the cringe-inducing moments just described. The scenes with the witness-statement taking I found to be the most enlightening, because it showed that even though so many people witnessed the same event, they reported it in much different ways. It is something we can relate to today, even with the prominent role technology plays in identifying something. While I cannot give this a major endorsement, it is at least worth the watch, with the cinematography and just a small amount of CGI making this very easy on the eyes.

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5 thoughts on “Movie Review: Killing Lincoln (2013)

  1. Just curious… do you think the idea of a host other than Tom Hanks would have been a good idea? In essence, the story had this big name actor sort of in and out of the presentation. Others actors have “lead” roles. When a major actor like Hanks is in a production and has this on-off role, do you think it is a distraction? His voice etc. is great but we are accustomed to him playing major roles. Would an unknown host with a great voice and delivery made this better?

    I probably did not have as much trouble with the production. I was very curious so I wanted to see how they told the story. The story did bounce around from mini-scenes with actors to narration then back so much that it hurt the momentum and dramatic build-up. I think this form of story telling is better suited to a production where there are several smaller stories woven into one story. For example, the Ken Burn’s Dust Bowl program has many pieces to it. That type of story does not need the same momentum that a story of an assassination and a man-hunt. Thoughts?

    1. Tom Hanks was on board because he is related to Lincoln (on his mother’s side, I believe). I had no problem with him hosting and narrating. But normally the host is just there in the beginning to establish himself as the voice, maybe in the middle to refresh the audience, and definitely at the end to wrap things up. No matter who the host was, popping up every 5-10 minutes was distracting.

      I have not seen Burns’ dust bowl documentary, but if it is anything like his other films, then the constant cutting to historians/speakers does not take away from it, since we need a visual of a person talking sometimes to break up the black and white pictures and/or silent film footage that are the basis for the documentary. Comparing that to this is like comparing apples to oranges IMO.

      1. Sounds like we are on the same page. As I re-read your comments I think we agree on the excessive choppy nature of the Lincoln program.

        I tossed in the Ken Burns conversation because I believe there are times when documentary story telling is built in small increments shifting from speaker to speaker. I know this muddied the conversation and this sort of documentary is different than the Lincoln production. I just wanted to know your thoughts.

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