I am so far out of my normal reviewing scope that today's look at Killing Lincoln that I have to chuckle a bit. It's a made-for-TV movie versus the usual direct-to-DVD fare that I find myself reviewing during slow weeks. The National Geographic Channel presented it, which is a network known for dutiful if not exactly inspiring recreations of history. Then there's the factor that it is based on a book by Bill O'Reilly who, and this should come as zero surprise, I tend not to have that much in common with.
Further fairness, I have not read his writing. Based on the results of this film and my previous reaction to his scribbles and rantings I am now less likely to. But based on the results I see here I have to conclude that he just wanted to write about the greatest Republican President, and greatest President period, that we are likely to see in America. So this is the last I will mention O'Reilly, because I certainly can't begrudge him that.
What's strange about the film, and in no way is represented in its presentation or performances, is that its was developed and prodcued by Tony Scott. Tony, as you may recall, ended his life last year which left his brother Ridley Scott to take up the mantle and help finish the production. It does not appear that either Scott had much of an impact on the way that the film was made, but I do have to wonder what Tony saw in the material. The gray production is more up Ridley's alley, especially with its dutiful approach to recreating the moments leading up to and the investigation after Lincoln's death.
Top to bottom the film is one long dramatization of the Lincoln's assassination while the camera cuts dutifully to a very serious looking Tom Hanks. While occasionally holding one of Lincoln's high top hats he withholds most drama from his voice and instead speaks with clear authority. As a narrative move this provides a lot of clarity to the role, but hiring someone of Hanks' caliber to devote his time to basically reading cue cards is another uninspiring decision.
Back to that production though, aside from the decision to cast everything in gray director Adrian Moat makes a few other decisions both odd and direct. He can't help but slather on the foreshadowing at times, emphasizing guns, blades, heads and throats so ominously that there is little doubt as to who will die by which weapon and to what appendage. That's fine for the straightforward story he's trying to tell, but then there's this weird tendency to shoot Lincoln constantly out of focus or behind the arm or shoulder of someone else who is similarly blurry. I could see that being a technique to show how historical figures are always viewed through the perpetually dimming view of history but the film really isn't about Lincoln, just his death. As it stands the real culprit is poor focus and camera placement.
I also suspect that Steven Spielberg's Lincoln, with its own dreary colors, weighed heavily on this production. No where is it so obvious than in the way Lincoln is played by Billy Campbell. When Daniel Day-Lewis played Lincoln he drew from some of the less portrayed aspects of the man, like his nasal, slightly higher-pitched voice. But now based on Campbell's performance I wonder if we're ever going to get an easy to understand Lincoln in these less higher profile productions ever again. Campbell's not a bad actor, and it doesn't help that he's drowned out by pounding drums, but I had so much trouble understanding his whine that even his reelection address seemed weak and distant.
The only aspect of the film that does not feel rote is the way that John Wilkes Boothe is portrayed and boy howdy is it fun. Despite the line early on that there was more to Boothe than being a villain the rest of the film just shows Jesse Johnson, as Boothe, having a blast. Whether the goal is to have fun or not when playing the most famous assassin in American history I do not know, but Johnson achieved it admirably. He hits every syllable of "And there - I will kill - a tyrant!" during the recreation of his stage days that it seems he never remembered to go out of character when he ominously growls "When I leave the stage for good I'll be the most talked about man in America."
This guy I would have liked to have had a whole film about. But, instead, it's pretty much just Boothe's story with Lincoln as a supporting player and the rest of Boothe's conspirators resigned to cameo appearances. By no means should anyone seek out this production unless you are the teacher of some very bored students but, if so, you could still do far worse.