Have we reached peak Lincoln? In the past year we had the absurdist fan fiction Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, and Steven Spielberg's grandiose, Oscar-baiting Lincoln. And that's in addition to the hundreds of books, films, and plays made about the 16th president, who seconds only Jesus in the number of works he serves as subject.
The National Geographic Channel is making its own entry into genre, with the made-for-television film Killing Lincoln, a dramatized documentary depicting Honest Abe's assassination and the pursuit for his killer, John Wilkes Booth. Whereas Vampire Hunter is for the action loving audience, and Lincoln for the Academy, Killing Lincoln is a President's Day Weekend gift to the history buffs, with every detail traced back to historical record.
"There's a tradition in Hollywood that you allow the necessities of dramatic storytelling, the necessities of narrative, the necessities of structure to force your decisions. So frequently every Hollywood film is rife with historical inaccuracies," says writer and executive producer Erik Jendresen. "My premise with this was: 'Let's turn that on its head. Let the absolute truth really guide this thing structurally and guide the narrative and inform every single frame of the film.'"
Killing Lincoln traces the days leading up to the Lincoln's 1865 assassination, from the perspectives of both the president and his killer, and continues with the hunt for Booth that followed.
The film is based on Bill O'Reilly's book of the same title and O'Reilly served as an executive producer. But Jendresen drew upon hundreds of primary source documents—memoirs, journals, letters, court testimonies—to write the screenplay. Every line of dialogue comes from historical record. (Hopefully the film avoids the number of factual errors found in the first edition of O'Reilly's book.)
Jendresen and his team's attention extended past the dialogue, to the casting—there are no arbitrary extras; every character is described in historical record—and to the set dressing. A scene in which Lincoln visits William Seward features the books on his bedside table that his daughter wrote she was reading him in her journal, and a bowl of fruit reportedly delivered by Edwin Stanton.
"In nearly every frame of the movie there are historical Easter eggs," says Billy Campbell, who plays the president. "[Jendresen] is a Lincoln fanatic."
Killing Lincoln takes the documentary format—talking heads, vaguely shot recreations—a few steps further into cinematic convention. Tom Hanks, who worked with Jendresen on the HBO mini-series Band of Brothers (and also happens to be related to Lincoln), is the film's single narrator, ushering the Killing Lincoln from scene to scene.
"No one delights in cinematic television history than Tom," says Jendresen. "It goes deep with him."
Killing Lincoln also differs from its recent big screen counterparts in that the character of Lincoln's assassin, John Wilkes Booth, emerges as the film's focus, particularly after the president is shot and the plot turns to the pursuit of Booth. Fleshing out this epic villain—often written off as a crazy, out of work actor—was one of Jendresen's primary goals in making the film.
"His feelings about the South and the Constitution and his own particular brand of patriotism were extreme," says Jendresen, "but there was nothing crazy about him."
Booth was one of the best regarded actors of his time, who stopped acting to devote himself to his political causes, particularly the defense of his beloved South from what he perceived to be a tyrant.
"He knew the world in large and dramatic gestures," Jendresen says. "You had a sense that he was watching himself perform in every moment."
And Jesse Johnson, as Booth, exudes this flair for the showmanship, playing up Booth's every statements, every decision, to its theatrical extreme.
As a television docudrama, Killing Lincoln may not deliver the cinematic suspense of Lincoln or the escapist amusement of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. But for those who like their history served accurate, it makes for fine TV.