Bill O’Reilly’s “Killing Lincoln,” not the best of the three films

It seems this must be the year of Lincoln, but this latest one came with some baggage. Photo: Jesse Johnson as Booth and Billy Campbell as Lincoln

VIENNA, Va., February 18, 2013 — Here we go again: Lincolnmania ranging from “Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter,” best described as an adorable campy version of the 16th President’s life as a fighter of vampires,  to “Lincoln,” the Steven Spielberg adroitly handled and beautifully acted bio of the great man for whom Daniel Day-Lewis will forever be known, to last night’s  offering, “Killing Lincoln.”

“Killing Lincoln” came to the home screen via National Geographic, based on the curious, best selling book by Bill O’Reilly, best known as the host of “The O’Reilly Factor” and Conservative darling of Fox News. It seems this must be the year of Lincoln. Granted, it is the anniversary month of his birth, but if there is another Lincoln movie out there, let’s hope it waits awhile before making an entrance.

This latest one came with some baggage. When O’Reilly’s book first appeared in print, the errors in it were so heinous that the company who handles placing books in stores of the National Park System announced a resounding “NO.” Real historians were then consulted, one would hope, corrections were made and approved, and the second edition passed some degree of muster that the first one would never achieve.

Killing Lincoln, the book

One positive note on this version is the executive producers are Ridley Scott and the now deceased Tony Scott, although their treatment of “Gettysburg” left a lot of serious fans of history and actual historians wringing their hands and writing that whole film off.

From the start, “Killing Lincoln” lets the audience know how things will be, moving choppily from scene to scene, action

to action, all the time narrated by Tom Hanks, an actor who always delivers what he’s asked to. The technique, however, ends any hope of a flowing picture of what occured, detracting from the overall film.

Jesse Johnson, (son of actor Don Johnson)  who portrays John Wilkes Booth, does so by over-playing the part. Granted, Booth was an actor and given to always being “on stage,” but Johnson goes a bit far with physical hyperbole in every scene.

Billy Campbell plays Lincoln, and a respectable performance it is for anyone who comes along behind the representation by Daniel Day-Lewis. This Lincoln is always brushing his unruly hair back from his forehead and simply fails at “looking presidential.” It is almost as though Campbell’s heart is not in it.

British actress Geraldine Hughes plays Mary Todd Lincoln, or a shadow of her, since she lacks the spunk and forthrightness that Sally Field showed so well in Spielberg’s movie.

A cameo spot goes to Benjamin Perkinson who capably plays young Tad Lincoln, with just the right amount of youthful aplomb and charm.

Booth’s killing of Lincoln just does not ring true for some reason. His peering through the unexplained square opening in the door to the Presidential box is too much, and the most erroneous sight is when he leaps from the flag-bedecked box, catching his heel or spur in the fabric, and then lands on the stage breaking his leg as he does so, yet running rapidly offstage with nary a sign of a limp.

The killing of Lincoln at Ford’s Theatre

An interesting little-known aspect is the introduction of Cpl. James Tanner, a Union veteran who happened to live near Ford’s Theater and the Peterson house, who was called upon to take stenographic notes of the interrogation of some of the number of witnesses to the assassination.

Tanner was a double amputee from the Battle of Second Manassas. The point of his appearance appears to be that out of all those witnesses to the shooting, no two gave the same description.

From there we are led to the controversial escape through most of Maryland’s swamps and forests, with many of the co-conspirators in tow, one way or another. Again, Booth appears to have both legs in the stirrups, and as one who has had a similar fracture, you just can’t do those things…..except in movies. Little is made of his stop at Dr. Mudd’s and the setting of the break in the fibula, which gave rise to Mudd’s inclusion as a co-conspirator, and whose descendants are still trying to have his name cleared.

Amid Hanks stentorian pronouncements of “Booth has four days to live…” or “the President has but 15 hours of life left”  etc., we see Booth in the barn where he will be shot, as random  flames begin to tickle the wooden sides. The soldiers outside are rarely seen, but their voices are heard.

[It brings to mind the 1,025 police surrounding the cabin in Big Bear, Calif. last week to capture Christopher Dorner, accomplished by setting fire to the cabin.]

Predictably we learn that Booth is now paralyzed, as he calls for his hands to be shown and he utters the expected but still broken-hearted words, “Useless, useless.”

The film concludes with the hanging of the co-conspirators, and the end of the tragedy. Robert E. Lee’s soul-stirring words end the piece: “Next to the destruction of the Confederacy, the death of Lincoln was the greatest tragedy the South has known.”

The film, overall, is a disappointment not unexpected, as the bar has been set tremendously high with the Spielberg film, which is nominated for several Oscars. The viewer is almost left with the thought that this is below the usual standards of National Geographic’s standards, but it is a final contribution to a Lincoln-filled February.

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Read more of Martha’s columns on The Civil War at the Communities at the Washington Times.

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Martha M. Boltz

Martha Boltz is a frequent contributor  to the long running Civil War features in The Washington Times America At War feature in the print and online editions. She has been a regular contributor to the original Civil War Page and its successor page since 1994, and is a civil war buff, historian, and writer. "Someone said that if we don't learn about the past, we are condemned to repeat it," she said, "and there are lessons of all sorts inherent in this bloody four-year period of our country's history."  She is a member of several heritage and lineage groups, as well as the Montgomery County Civil War Round Table. Her standing invitation is, "come on down - check the blog - send me your comments and let's have fun with its history and maybe learn something at the same time."


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