“You are a free citizen in this Republic. Kneel to God only and thank Him for the liberty that is yours.” -Abraham Lincoln, “Killing Lincoln”
Abraham Lincoln, the sixteenth President of the United States and the first Republican to occupy the White House, is likely the most revered commander in chief in America’s 237 year history, and during his time he was also one of the most controversial. The stories of his assassination the night of April 14, 1865 and the months leading up to it remain among the most captivating in history textbooks, and more recently on the small screen in the made for TV film based on Bill O’Reilly’s best selling book of the same name, “Killing Lincoln.”
The book was well received by readers and critics, but panned by historians, citing numerous minor factual errors including the meetings between Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant, several mentions of Lincoln in the Oval Office which wasn’t constructed until 1909 and the date of the 1862 fire at Ford’s Theater. The film, however, largely avoids these errors by focusing primarily on the days leading up to Lincoln’s assassination rather than major Civil War events as Dugard and O’Reilly had done.
“Killing Lincoln” seeks to personify the controversial 16th President of the United States (Billy Campbell) during his final days, death and subsequent martyrdom, but the more fascinating aspect of this book and film is the personification of a man who in the test of time has been reduced to what narrator Tom Hanks refers to as “a two dimensional scoundrel,” John Wilkes Booth (Jesse Johnson) and his failed and oft-forgotten kidnapping conspiracy turned murderous plot to bring down the federal government by assassinating the President and other high ranking officials including the attempt on the life of Secretary of State William Seward.
While you might be saying to yourself that “Killing Lincoln” is nothing more than a National Geographic special, you’re right, but it is a National Geographic special with a very impressive repertoire of famous names behind the project. Originally authored by Fox News commentator Bill O’Reilly & historian Martin Dugard, produced by Ridley Scott and Tony Scott (his final project at the time of his death last summer), and narrated by Tom Hanks, the educational network seemed to have pulled out all the stops for this project, which worked very much to its advantage come ratings time when it amounted to the highest rated television special in their 16 year broadcast history.
Released not long after Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln,” this film focuses more on the surrender of Robert E. Lee and its repercussions, including of course Lincoln’s assassination, while its immediate predecessor, “Lincoln,” focuses more on the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment, abolishing the shameful 362-year period of African American slavery in the United States. Both of these events concretely established Lincoln’s legacy, and both of these events took place within the final three months of Lincoln’s life.
“Lincoln,” however, only made a brief mention of Lincoln’s assassination by showing him on his deathbed; “Killing Lincoln,” on the other hand, rather dramatically took us into the mind of the murderer, John Wilkes Booth. This book and this film both remind us that Booth, while still a fanatical Confederate sympathizer, was actually one of the most respected and well-known actors of his time, well known enough that he actually has a Bacon number of 5!**
Jesse Johnson does a brilliant job in his portrayal of a man whose charm and bravado on and off the stage fooled his admirers from seeing his true sick, twisted and radical interior. The film arguably focuses more on Booth on his obsessive quest to bring down a “tyrant” than it does Lincoln in his final days, feeling his assassination looming, which leads Johnson to carry the entire film.
Daniel Day Lewis is obviously a very tough act to follow with his portrayal of the 16th President in his Oscar winning role in “Lincoln,” but Billy Campbell portrayed a far more extroverted and eloquent Lincoln as opposed to his Hollywood counterpart, who portrayed Lincoln as an introverted, damaged, exhausted and disturbed commander in chief, a much more accurate portrayal of Lincoln in his final days.
While a significant, yet necessary deviation from O’Reilly’s and Dugard’s original work, a stellar production team and cast lend themselves well to this TV movie and give a new credibility to National Geographic programming.
**Booth was in an 1863 production of MacBeth with Louisa Lane Drew (1), who just so happened to be the grandmother of It’s a Wonderful Life actor Lionel Barrymore (Mr. Potter) (2), who of course starred with Jimmy Stewart in that film (3), Jimmy Stewart later starred in Airport ’77 with Jack Lemmon (4) who then starred with Kevin Bacon in JFK (5).
“Killing Lincoln” is on DVD and digital media services today. Another two hour film “Killing Kennedy” based on O’Reilly and Dugard’s second book of the same name, will be released in November and star Rob Lowe as JFK. Also, the third book in the “Killing” series, “Killing Jesus,” will hit bookshelves and eBook stores on September 24th.
You can watch the trailer for “Killing Lincoln” below:
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