Judge Gordon Sullivan regrets that no vampires were involved in this movie.
Based on the New York Times bestseller.
Bill O'Reilly is most famous as a television pundit, but he's published numerous books. Late in his career, he has turned to co-writing historical works on various assassinations—from Jesus to JFK. His first, though, co-written with Bill Dugand, was Killing Lincoln. Attempting to show the "shocking truth" behind Lincoln's assassination, the book was a hit (though perhaps more for O'Reilly's name than for the material in the book, which is yet another take on the already established facts). Unsurprisingly an adaptation followed. Unlike Spielberg's recent big-screen work, Killing Lincoln debuted on National Geographic's television network. Though the film handles a historically important subject, a lack of budget and clear direction keeps it from hitting the mark.
Killing Lincoln focuses on the final days of President Lincoln (Billy Campbell, The Rocketeer) before he is assassinated by a conspiracy that includes John Wilkes Booth (Jesse Johnson, Chapman). The story is narrated by Tom Hanks.
If you're an American viewer, chances are you know exactly how Killing Lincoln is going to end…as if the title weren't clue enough. This is a problem that every historical assassination film has to contend with—there's very little dramatic tension to be mined from an event the audience knows so much about. There are a few things that filmmakers can do to make it compelling, though:
• Throw money at the problem. This is the tack that Lincoln takes. Put a big director behind the camera, strong actors in front of it and lots of money on the screen in the form of costumes and setting and the audience will forget that they know exactly how the Civil War turned out. Killing Lincoln doesn't have the budget for that kind of approach. Instead we get a bunch of decent (though not great) actors playing the parts and there's nothing like the big-budget sumptuousness that the silver screen provides.
• Present a counter-theory. At one extreme you can make Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, and at the other you can make Oliver Stone's JFK. Both take the accepted narrative and turn it on its head, generating tension and interest through subverting our knowledge of history. Killing Lincoln doesn't really do that, either, presenting a pretty standard case for the conspiracy to kill Lincoln.
• Present an investigation. JFK is an example here as well. In these cases the film takes certain things as the facts that we know, but by wrapping them in an investigative narrative make things new again. Killing Lincoln doesn't do this either, opting instead for a straightforward narration of Lincoln's final days (played so straight, in fact, that Tom Hanks literally narrates much of the proceedings).
Killing Lincoln is made all the more tragic by the fact that it shows some signs of potential. We've had better from producers Tony and Ridley Scott in the past, and there are so hints that this could have been a better film. Tom Hanks' narration isn't itself a problem, but it's better suited to a straight-ahead historical documentary in the Ken Burns mold. Similarly, without his narration and with a bit of editing the "countdown" narrative could have reworked to create some narrative juice. The casting isn't awful—everyone here is dependable if not brilliant—but either a more charismatic Lincoln or John Wilkes Booth would have helped tremendously. Instead, we have a forgettable film that seems to be cashing in on a newfound interest in Lincoln in the wake of President Obama's election.
At least Killing Lincoln (Blu-ray) is decent. The 1.78:1/1080p AVC-encoded transfer is fine. The digital source looks clean and bright throughout, with a slick, contemporary look. No one aspect stands out: detail, saturation, and black levels are all fine without being amazing. The DTS-HD 5.1 track is a bit more impressive, showcasing clear dialogue and a solid balance between dialogue and musical cues, with decent directionality for ambient effects.
Extras start with a commentary by screenwriter Erik Jendresen, who addresses the history behind the film as well as the adaptation of the source novel. We also get a 22-minute making-of featurette, as well as a collection of shorter featurettes that delve a bit deeper into various characters as well as the film's direction. A short interview with O'Reilly is included, as well as a short promo for Virginia tourism. Finally, an Ultraviolet and iTunes Digital Copy are available to download.
Killing Lincoln (Blu-ray) is pretty much inessential. Maybe high school history teachers can pop the disc in during an American History class that needs a break from lectures or reading, but for the average viewer, the information in this production is redundant and the presentation pretty dull. Though the Blu-ray represents a solid effort, it's not worth much more than a rental except for Lincoln fanatics.
Not perfect, but not quite guilty.
Give us your feedback!
What's "fair"? Whether positive or negative, our reviews should be unbiased, informative, and critique the material on its own merits.
Scales of Justice
Review content copyright © 2013 Gordon Sullivan; Site design and review layout copyright © 2015 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.