By Chris Rebholz
Jun 18, 2013 03:31 PM EST

Killing Lincoln Blu-ray Review

Killing Lincoln Blu-ray Review
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Between Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, Steven Spielberg's Lincoln, and the numerous novels and non-fiction works published about the sixteenth president recently, 2012 was the year of Honest Abe's pop-culture revival. Not that he's ever really gone out of style. Lincoln has been the American Moses—a saintly symbol representing justice, freedom from oppression, and the power of an awesome beard—ever since he was martyred at the hands of the actor-turned-assassin John Wilkes Booth, who is conversely remembered only as a two-dimensional scoundrel. "His life was much more complicated," says narrator Tom Hanks at the beginning of Killing Lincoln, a National Geographic Channel docudrama— produced by Ridley Scott and his late brother, Tony—which sets out to profile Booth and give a detailed, historically accurate account of the events surrounding Lincoln's death. The program accomplishes the latter with a factual dedication that borders on obsessive—just listen to writer/producer Erik Jendresen's detailed commentary track—but on the former aim it's something of a disappointment. By the end of Killing Lincoln, John Wilkes-Booth is still the flat, single-minded figure he's always been in our collective historical consciousness. We learn little about his about his personal life, and less about the motivations behind his motivations. That is, we get all of the whats, but few of the whys.
If the title wasn't a tipoff, Killing Lincoln is based on the non-fiction book of the same name by firebrand Fox News commentator Bill O'Reilly and travel writer Martin Dugard, who have since penned Killing Kennedy and Killing Jesus together. Both new books are already slated for adaptation on the National Geographic Channel. Chalk it up to the wave of Lincoln interest that spread in the wake of Steven Spielberg's big-budget opus, because Killing Lincoln isn't very interesting or entertaining on its own. Let's put it this way; if the show had been released in theaters, it might've done big business on its opening weekend, but with a steep drop-off the following week because of poor word-of-mouth. It's not that it's bad, it's just lifeless and all-around unnecessary, a cheap cash-in that is to Lincoln what straight-to-video knockoff Abraham Lincoln vs. Zombies was to Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. If that makes sense. Instead of Daniel Day-Lewis, for instance, we get former Rocketeer Billy Campbell—more recently, from AMC's The Killing—whose tired and tiring gravitas is 20% acting and 80% gaunt eye and cheek makeup. He's less the embodiment of our most beatified president than a glorified re-enactor.
And that's what Killing Lincoln is, essentially—a glorified re-enactment, somewhere between a narrative made-for-TV movie and your usual History Channel-style docudrama. There's no cavalcade of expert historian talking heads here, just Tom Hanks, who sits on a stool and patiently gives exposition, tying together the "dramatic" sequences that detail the days immediately before and after Lincoln's death at the tail-end of the Civil War. We watch Booth—played by Don Johnson's son Jesse Wayne Johnson—as he plays kings and villains onstage, and then conspires with his accomplices in his off-hours, evolving their plan from what was merely a kidnapping scheme to a full-on attack, targeting not just Lincoln, but his Secretary of State and his Vice President as well. We witness a previous assassination attempt on Lincoln, and see the president travel to the still-smoldering remnants of the newly captured Richmond, where he sits at Jefferson Davis' desk in "the Confederate White House." And where Lincoln avoided the shooting in the Ford Theatre entirely—Spielberg claims "it would've become exploitation"—Killing Lincoln sets it up as the program's centerpiece. As it's been shown numerous times before, Booth sneaks in to fire the fateful shot, jumps onstage and yells "Sic semper tyrannis!"—or, "Thus always to tyrants!"—and then flees through southern Maryland and northern Virginia, where he gets help from a series of sympathizers before being cornered and gunned down in a tobacco barn.
The full series of events is laid out here with an eye for accuracy—some historians have claimed that the TV adaptation is better about this than both O'Reilly's book and Spielberg's movie—but this is dry education indeed. Watching it, it's not hard to understand why historical epics like Lincoln often exaggerate or supplement the truth for dramatic effect—sometimes the storytelling requires it. Relying strictly on the triple- checked facts, writer Erik Jendresen and director Adrian Moat resist the allure of getting inside Booth's head to probe around for what might've possibly turned the zealot into a killer. We learn that he's a racist, anti-abolitionist who hates Lincoln, but there's no attempt at understanding how he came to harbor these views. Neither do we gather much about Booth, the man, beyond his status as a decent actor overshadowed by the careers of his elder brother, Edwin—the foremost Shakespearean performer of the times—and his thespian father, Junius. We're not told anything of his life before the war, or even his secret engagement to Washington D.C. debutante Lucy Lambert Hale, who was not only the daughter of a prominent abolitionist, but was also being romantically pursued by Lincoln's son, Robert Todd Lincoln. How do you leave that out? We leave Killing Lincoln with no better conception of Booth than the one we most likely came in with—a pistol-toting villain who ultimately harmed his beloved South by killing a president whose post-war stance was all about reconciliation and forgiveness. Of course, it doesn't help that Jesse Wayne Johnson's portrayal here is over- theatrical to the point of being cartoonish. You imagine his Booth twirling his mustache, flinging his cape over his shoulder, and tying a helpless maiden to the train tracks.
If you watched Killing Lincoln on the National Geographic Channel, you'll have a good idea what to expect from the docudrama's Blu-ray release, which looks about the same. The only audio track on the disc is a lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround mix. Like the picture, the sound design may not compare to the latest blockbusters, but it's certainly more movie-like than your usual TV docudrama. Special features include:   A commentary by executive producer and screenwriter Erik Jendresen who goes into extreme detail about the lengths the production crew went to in order to keep the program historically accurate. An interview with author Bill O'Reilly as he discusses his motivations for writing the book, his thoughts on the TV adaptation, and the day President Obama invited him to the Lincoln Bedroom to view the handwritten Gettysburg Address. Uncovering the Truth: The Making of Killing Lincoln: A nicely put-together making-of documentary, chronicling the various aspects of the program's production.
Lincoln in Virginia: A promo for Civil War-themed tourism in the state of Virginia.
Promotional Features: A series of five short behind-the-scenes featurettes, with the actors' discussing their characters, director Adrian Moat talking about approaching the material from an outsider's perspective—he's English—and a quick National Geographic teaser.
Sneak Peek: Trailers for several recent and upcoming Fox releases.
Killing Lincoln tries to capitalize on the lingering interest in the sixteenth president after Steven Spielberg's Lincoln—and it did draw huge ratings for the National Geographic Channel when it aired in February—but this is a dry-as-cotton docudrama. Though it promises to give some depth to the historically two-dimensional John Wilkes Booth, you leave Killing Lincoln with no greater grasp of the infamous assassin's mind or motivations. One could see the program getting some play in middle school history classes but it doesn't hold up well to living room viewing. 20th Century Fox's Blu-ray is decent, with some watchable bonus features and a good audio/video presentation, but you'd probably be better off saving your money and waiting for Killing Lincoln to hit Netflix or Amazon Prime.
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MPAA Rating: NR
Running Time: 120 minutes
Distributed By: Scott Free Productions

For more information about Killing Lincoln visit the FlickDirect Movie Database.

About Chris Rebholz

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