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'Killing Lincoln' review: Engaging docudrama

The scene where Abraham Lincoln is shot by

The scene where Abraham Lincoln is shot by John Wilkes Booth at Ford's Theater in the television film "Killing Lincoln" based on the best-selling book by Bill O'Reilly. Credit: National Geographic Channels

THE SHOW "Killing Lincoln"

WHEN|WHERE Sunday at 8 p.m. on National Geographic

WHAT IT'S ABOUT Based on Bill O'Reilly's best-seller of the same name, this docudrama charts John Wilkes Booth (played here by Jesse Johnson) and his stalking of the president in the days leading up to the assassination, and the days following. (Johnson is the son of Don Johnson and Patti D'Arbanville.)

Lincoln (Billy Campbell) is in a buoyant mood on April 14, 1865, with the war over, and a happy future ahead. But Booth, a highly regarded actor, has been turning up at his public engagements, Zelig-like, for months, planning to "decapitate" the government. He would conclude his plan that night at Ford's Theater.

Lincoln had seemed cavalier about his safety, but explained to one associate that he could die "once" or "die over and over and over again" living in fear. Tom Hanks narrates.

MY SAY One should approach any docudrama based on a well-known historical event with extreme caution for the obvious reason that the "drama" part can be and often is -- in a word -- stupid.

"Killing Lincoln" is a reasonably happy exception. These dramatic re-creations range anywhere from competent to good (usually the latter) and never once get in the way of the story; in fact, they enliven it and lard it with valuable, relevant detail.

The actors are solid, particularly Campbell, who bestows upon old Abe the genial beatification we've long come to expect, while Johnson gives his subject a demonic Snidely Whiplash energy -- appropriately reinforcing his enduring rep as a world-class homicidal whackjob.

Hanks enters the story at the right moments, supplying a narrative bridge that pushes the ticktock briskly along.

But what's best here is the spray of little details that fill in the broader picture we all know so well. There is, for example, the story of James R. Tanner, a double amputee from the second battle of Bull Run, who is summoned to take shorthand notes from witnesses at Ford's Theater. He records 1,500 accounts -- but "no two ... matched."

And it remains unclear whether one of the most famous quotes in American history, uttered by Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton when Lincoln died, was: "Now he belongs to the angels" or "Now he belongs to the ages." Tanner's pencil had broken by that point.

BOTTOM LINE Engaging docudrama with lots of interesting detail. Worth watching.


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