Friday, February 15, 2013

Killing Lincoln: the Tragedy Still Haunts Us

Suddenly Abraham Lincoln is red hot thanks mainly to the beautifully crafted,  Oscar nominated movie starring Daniel Day-Lewis and directed by Steven Spielberg.
But it would be completely unfair to label National Geographic Channel's new docudrama Killing Lincoln as a rip off.
The well made TV production stands on its own as it meticulously chronicles the last days of President Lincoln and the successful assassination by John Wilkes Booth.
Narrated on camera by a very sombre Tom Hanks, it gives us a completely different portrait of Lincoln as played by Billy Campbell. Here Lincoln is a man beset by huge problems and not the icon figure played by Day-Lewis.
Adrian Mott (Gettysburg) directed  with an eye to period details and Emmy winner Erik Jendresen wrote it with passion and a regard for the rush of history.
The executive producers are Ridley Scott and his late brother Tony Scott to whom the film is dedicated.
This is NGL's first scripted TV movie and it can stand on its own. The premiere is on Sunday February 17 at 10 p.m. and I highly recommend it.
It's true that Campbell lacks the broad humanistic touches but maybe this Lincoln is more human because of his very prosaic qualities.
The structure is a lot like Jim Bishop's fine 1955 book The Day Lincoln Was Shot.
A rapid series of scenes gets us immediately involved in the assassination plotting although, of course, we know how tit will all turn out. But the number of "might haves" is surely astounding.
Just 10 days before he was killed we see Lincoln and young son Thad take a trip to the defeated Confederac y capital of Richmondand we see Lincoln sitting in the chair of the ousted Dixie president (Jefferson Davis).
It was Davis who later would call that defeat and the subsequent assassination of Lincoln as the two worst things to ever happen to the South.
Based on Fox anchor Bill O'Reilly's rambling book the TV movie at times threatens to degenerate into an anecdotal history of all the mistakes Lincoln made in those last days that made him such a hated target of Southerners.
In this narrative Lincoln shares screen time with Booth played in an effectively exaggerated style by Jesse Johnson (Don Johnson's son) as a gifted actor of melodrama but given to florid gestures and an inability to think straight.
Production details are excellent with the vision of Washington as still pretty much a small town with a huge and resentful Southern population that seethed at the notion of the downfall of the Confederacy.
As in many TV documentaries there is a lot of narration and not enough of Lincoln the man simply speaking and interacting with his family. And Hanks keeps repeating all the time that "Lincoln has four days to live" or what ever. That becomes repetitious.
The actual event at Ford's theater is dramatically thrilling as are the details of the failed attempts to save the mortally wounded president.
And the  twelve-day manhunt to find the fleeing Booth and kill him is actually the most exciting sequence in this production.
The most chilling scene is an actual photograph taken at Lincoln's second inaugural on the back portico of the White House --and there in the dense crowd is Booth who could have easily  killed Lincoln that day.
We also learn that as Lincoln lay dying the account was being transcribed by a court reporter who had already lost his legs in the war. And this reporter accurately transcribed the words of Secretary of State Stanton as "Now he belongs to the angels".
But let's face it Americans have a love of history which Canadians simply do not share.
Last season CBC-TV mounted an elaborate historical reconstruction titled Sir John A.: Birth Of A Country with Grade A list actors  (Shawn Doyle, Peter Outerbridge) and nobody watched it . So subsequent installments were duly cancelled.
And let's face it we will never see a  Canadian TV movie on the 1868 assassination of D'Arcy McGee, right?
MY RTATING: ***1/2.

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