‘Killing Lincoln” — over and over it seems. Here is our favorite national assassination narrative for the millionth time, told this time in tick-tock format, day by day, moment to moment, narrated by Tom Hanks, inspired by the best-selling prose of that meticulous historian Bill O’Reilly. In ways that are sometimes mesmerizing and yet agonizingly trivial, all roads lead to Ford’s Theatre, where, on a Friday night in April 1865, our 16th president chuckles at the light comedy called “Our American Cousin.” There, of course, a shot rings out from the box seats that are draped in patriotic bunting; a killer leaps from the balcony with wild-eyed resolve. We have all killed Lincoln once more.
The experience of watching the National Geographic Channel’s ambitious but strange docu-drama, airing Sunday night, is a little like those conversations you sometimes overhear when wandering among the tourists on the Mall or in front of Ford’s on 10th Street NW. There is always a man — someone’s dad or high school field trip chaperone — who is talking a little too loudly, too authoritatively about the sweep and significance of history. His facts are correct (or correct enough), but his tone is all wrong. His dramatic pauses are too tedious. His voice echoes off the marble in a certain way, and he loves it. The teenagers roll their eyes.
Even when that man’s voice belongs to Hanks, the gravitas is a little much to take. “Killing Lincoln” at first seems like those documentaries that make frequent and cheesy use of reenactment, but instead it takes the reenactment into the realm of full-fledged cinema. Billy Campbell (“The Killing,” “Once and Again”) stars as President Abraham Lincoln, playing the part with the dutiful, whiskery dread of a man who knows that Daniel Day-Lewis is busy raising the bar impossibly high in Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln”.
Comparing the two projects (and the two Abes) is wildly unfair, but unavoidable. Spielberg’s film is a rousingly amplified drama about amending the Constitution, using the assassination as a tragic epilogue. “Killing Lincoln,” as the title plainly states (and readers of O’Reilly’s book know), is about all the little details of a complicated assassination plot meant to reignite the Civil War.
“Lincoln” elevates our core ideals to the heavens, ending on elegiac note. “Killing Lincoln” seems mainly determined to re-juice a tragic event. Is “Killing Lincoln” looking for meaning? Is it looking for fresh evidence? Is it trying to tell us something it thinks we don’t already know? Not really. It’s just fascinated by a crime — it’s the “CSI” episode for people who found “Lincoln” much too hard to follow.
“Killing Lincoln” is also saddled with clunky writing, mostly in the narration. As the president tours the surrendered city of Richmond and shows his son Tad the desk “where Mr. [Jefferson] Davis conducted his war,” Hanks’s voice leaps in with one of many footnoted asides that are meant, I suppose, to lend the enterprise an overriding air of coincidence and/or irony: Jefferson Davis “will die 24 years later at the age of 81,” Hanks says. “But Abraham Lincoln has less than 11 days to live.”
And on it goes, these constant reminders of who has how many days (hours, minutes) of remaining life. Campbell wisely reaches for simple statesmanship, while his co-star Jesse Johnson howls at the moon as John Wilkes Booth, the actor turned radical hothead. Johnson takes every opportunity to overplay the part, but, in doing so, perhaps arrives at some loony truth about what Booth might have been like in the days leading up to and following the assassination. We are to understand that he was an insufferable wacko.
Only when it has 20 minutes left to live does “Killing Lincoln” knock it off with the hokey structure and melodrama and let the story itself take charge. Its re-creation of the night of April 14 (and the following mournful morning) finally begins to feel like something we recognize: a thriller.
The rest feels like a strange multimedia presentation desperate to interest viewers in something that is, on its own and unembellished, plenty interesting enough. Certain history teachers will love “Killing Lincoln.” Amid history’s thunderous echoes, you can hear the squeaky wheels of an AV cart being wheeled into the classroom.
(90 minutes) premieres Sunday at 8 p.m. on National Geographic Channel.