MOAT: Killing Lincoln (2013)

Killing Lincoln (2013) directed by Adrian Moat. Length: 120 minutes. Premiere: February 17, 2013 (National Geographic Channel).

The reviewer sits down on the couch. She picks up the remote control. It is 7:57 p.m.

The docudrama is entitled Killing Lincoln, like the book upon which it is based. The reviewer knows that Bill O’Reilly has written this book along with a researcher, Martin Dugard. It has sold more than one million copies. This does not give her comfort. But she has a secret hope that it will turn out to be great, the kind of fast-paced and engaging film that will convey historical knowledge through an alluring visual narrative. She turns on the T.V. It is 8:01 p.m.

A handsome man lights his cigarette with a street torch and then heads to the front door of a theater. The music is ominous. The man climbs up the stairs. He pauses outside a door, puts on a hat, and runs his finger across the brim. He opens the door, presses his back against the wall, raises a gun and levels it at the head of a president.

A familiar voice informs us that John Wilkes Booth (Jesse Johnson), with a group of co-conspirators, had been planning “not only to kill Abraham Lincoln, but to decapitate the government of the United States” for quite some time. The men argue about the plan. The reviewer notes that the director has chosen not to show the face of Lewis Powell (Josh Murray), the 21-year-old man who will viciously stab Secretary of State William Henry Seward and pistol whip his son Frederick, at roughly the same moment that Booth shoots Lincoln. Booth ends the conversation by proclaiming dramatically—in a kind of shouting whisper—that when he kills Lincoln, he will “kill a tyrant!” Killing Lincoln will end in 1 hour and 55 minutes.

Next, the familiar voice is revealed. Tom Hanks sits in a chair on a set designed to look like the backstage of a theater—props all around—and looks at the camera seriously. “This is the true story of the killing of Abraham Lincoln, the first assassination of an American president,” Hanks declares,“and what might be the most resonant crime in the history of the nation.” Booth’s was not the first plan to bring harm to the 16th president (Billy Campbell), he informs us. And so back to the action, an attempt on Lincoln’s life as he rides the road from the War Department to the Soldiers’ Home in August 1864. He loses his hat and when a young soldier returns it to him, Lincoln sees the bullet hole and jokes, “it is properly ventilated for these hot summer months.” The soldier does not smile. The reviewer yawns. It will not be the last time. Killing Lincoln will end in 1 hour and 53 minutes.

And so it goes. Lincoln travels to Richmond, walking past its still smoking ruins to go sit at Jefferson Davis’ desk in the White House of the Confederacy; Booth continues planning and smoking and ranting. The reviewer notes that every time the action comes back to Hanks, he is fondling a prop from the previous scenes: a top hat, a pocket watch, spurs. Killing Lincoln will end in 1 hour and 13 minutes.

And finally—it feels like forever—we are back to April 14, 1865. Booth shoots Lincoln, jumps to the stage, and runs off; these scenes are intercut with those of Powell attacking the Seward household, spraying blood all over the walls (and still, we do not see his face). The reviewer perks up a little as Chief Justice David Kellogg Cartter begins to hear eyewitness testimony. Here, at last, is attention to the many different views of historical events, even as they are happening. Each witness sees something similar but what he or she sees is not exactly the same. It is a moment in the docudrama when “history” is in the process of being created in all of its complexity and contradiction (and recorded by a veteran amputee, Corporal James Tanner [Kam Dabrowski]). Killing Lincoln will end in 46 minutes and 43 seconds.

Lincoln dies. Booth flees across the Navy Yard Bridge, then to Maryland and Virginia. His accomplice David Herold (Seamus Mulcahy) catches up with him. There is no sign of George Atzerodt (Mark Halpern), who was supposed to kill Andrew Johnson but does not even attempt it. Powell disappears into the night. The conspirators are identified. Their photographs collected and printed onto a Wanted poster. The manhunt begins. Killing Lincoln will end in 37 minutes and 45 seconds.

Booth and Herold keep moving. The Union cavalry follows. Booth writes in his diary. Herold wrings his hands. The reviewer is astounded. Somehow, the filmmakers have managed to make one of the classic narratives of fiction and cinema—a chase after fugitives—mind-numbingly tedious. The cavalry surrounds a tobacco barn. Herold surrenders. Booth is shot in the neck and paralyzed. He dies several hours later. It is April 26, 1865. Killing Lincoln will end in 6 minutes and 34 seconds.

The reviewer cannot believe there are still six minutes remaining. But it is lucky she withstood the boredom long enough. Because here are Alexander Gardner and Timothy O’Sullivan aboard the USS Saugus, photographing the conspirators. And here we see Lewis Powell’s face for the first time. Not the poor actor who has played him only below the neck, but the actual Powell, captured in all of his maniacal arrogance in Gardner’s image. Then something even more interesting happens: the filmmakers stage a photograph that does not exist: the autopsy of John Wilkes Booth. Here is another moment of interest to the reviewer. With the exposure of that glass negative, the impact of photography, television, and historical memory in shaping our understanding of the Civil War come into focus. Killing Lincoln will end in 3 minutes and 9 seconds.

And when it does, the reviewer turns off the T.V. and sighs. It is 9:58 p.m.
Megan Kate Nelson (Lecturer in Literature and History, Harvard University) is the author of Ruin Nation: Destruction and the American Civil War (2012).

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