Television Review

TV doc leaves out all the good stuff

The Chinese say 2013 is the year of the snake. For Americans, it’s surely the year of the presidential assassin. In November, the 50th anniversary of President Kennedy’s murder will trigger a media avalanche. And for a warm-up, we’ve got an Abraham Lincoln boomlet going on right now, with Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln collecting gold at the box office and, undoubtedly, the Oscars, while the National Geographic Channel heavily promotes Ridley and Tony Scott’s Killing Lincoln as its first scripted drama.

Killing Lincoln, unfortunately, is nothing of the sort. Despite its arsenal of executive star power — the Scott brothers producing, Tom Hanks narrating, and a script based on a bestselling book by Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly — it’s more like one of those cheesy true-crime documentaries that turn up on cable news channels on the weekends, with a bunch of melodramatic recreations wrapped around a bare-bones narration.

The most interesting thing about Killing Lincoln, in fact, is how it can be so tepidly uninteresting. The proven facts of Lincoln’s murder include everything that Kennedy assassination nuts fantasize about and more:

An actual conspiracy, headed by a fanatic linked to (depending on how you view the Confederacy) either a foreign intelligence service or a fanatic extremist movement. A killer motivated not by Freudian power fantasies but a desire to decapitate the U.S. government. A kangaroo-court trial at the hands of a military commission that makes what goes on Guantanamo look like an ACLU civil-liberties workshop. Missing evidence that was curiously unpursued by the authorities. And the first woman ever put to death by the U.S. government

Most Americans are familiar only with the most obvious fact of Lincoln’s assassination — that in the waning days of the Civil War, the president was shot by actor John Wilkes Booth, a Confederate sympathizer who was cornered and killed a couple of weeks later by the Union Army.

But the full story is more complex. Booth headed a group of conspirators who planned to kill not only Lincoln but also Vice President Andrew Johnson and Secretary of State William Seward, delivering a crippling blow to the U.S. government that they hoped would give the Confederacy time to recover from its battlefield defeats.

Booth carried out his part of the plot, slipping into the president’s box at a Washington theater and shooting him in the head. But Seward, who was stabbed repeatedly as he lay in a sickbed, survived, and the conspirator assigned to kill Johnson got drunk and went to sleep instead. The Union, far from decapitated, was enraged. Not only was Booth killed, seven other accused conspirators were tried not in criminal court but before a military commission that sentenced three of them to hang and the rest to prison.

Surely this offers the opportunity for great filmmaking, either as interpretive drama or expositional documentary. But Killing Lincoln’s slipshod format and peculiarly narrow focus deliver neither one. The show is essentially a series of narrative cut-ins by Hanks, each followed by stiffly melodramatic recreations. The narrations are too brief to explain the intricacies of the story, the dramatic bits too simple to provide insight into personalities. The result is a tepid police procedural.

The oddest thing of all is Killing Lincoln’s resolute avoidance of anything remotely controversial or contentious. Some historians believe the cases against two of the conspirators — Samuel Mudd, a doctor who treated the leg Booth broke during his escape from the murder scene, and Mary Surratt, in whose boarding house the plot was hatched — were weak. Killing Lincoln is silent on the subject and barely mentions Surratt at all, though to this day she’s the only woman to be executed by the federal government.

The assassination’s mysteries are similarly unexplored. Booth was in regular contact with the Confederate secret service during his wartime travels on the theatrical circuit. Did the Confederates direct or encourage his plotting? Not a whiff of that in Killing Lincoln, nor of the strange case of Booth’s diary. Found on his body, it openly discussed the assassination. But it was never introduced into evidence at trial — and when it was discovered in government files two years later during impeachment proceedings against Lincoln’s successor Johnson, several pages had been removed. Maybe they’ll turn up some day on eBay.

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