With Daniel Day-Lewis the prohibitive favorite to win the best-actor Oscar for his portrayal of Honest Abe in Lincoln, I can’t help but feel sorry for Billy Campbell.
Campbell plays the 16th president in “Killing Lincoln,” a production based on the novel by Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard; it premieres at 7 p.m. Sunday on National Geographic Channel.
NGC calls this its “first original scripted drama,” although it is in fact something of a hybrid, almost like a documentary with extended re-enactments. Tom Hanks appears as an authoritative host, describing and explaining events while addressing the audience directly or in voice-overs. The Hanks segments then serve as a bridge between the dramatized portions, which include not only Campbell’s Lincoln but scheming by John Wilkes Booth (played by Jesse Johnson) and other conspirators.
The script — covering events before the assassination and its aftermath — is by Erik Jendresen, an Emmy winner as writer and producer on the Hanks-backed “Band of Brothers,” and the production does try to hew to the historical record, to offer bits that audiences may not know and, on occasion, to note gaps in history. This occasionally leads to some odd production decisions, such as having the actors perform a scene from one historical account while the narration is skeptical of that happening, or showing the making of a photo now lost.
But the larger problem with “Killing Lincoln” lies not in its writing but its presentation.
Campbell, seen not long ago in “The Killing” (not of Lincoln), is a good actor. (I am less convinced of Johnson’s skills.) He has a knack for conveying a pained vulnerability, which is sometimes used in his Lincoln performance. But where Day-Lewis rivetingly inhabited his character, Campbell cannot get so close; too often his Lincoln seems little more than a trick of makeup, especially around the eyes.
Indeed, there’s an overall cheapness of look in the dramatic portions of “Killing Lincoln,” for example in the way settings often look more like studio sets than natural locations. The bloody assault that was part of the attempt to kill Lincoln’s secretary of state, William Seward, at the same time Lincoln was shot is shown more than once, as if the audience needed some extra gore to keep watching.
As I said, one of the challenges facing “Killing Lincoln” is that many viewers will come to it with recent memories of the bigger-budgeted, more textured and better acted big-screen “Lincoln.” But even taken on its own, “Killing Lincoln” is moderately interesting in its information (at least for people unfamiliar with accounts of the assassination) but lacking in its attempts at drama.