The assassination of Abraham Lincoln on the evening of April 14, 1865, remains a defining event in American history. Every schoolkid knows that Lincoln was shot at Ford’s Theater by John Wilkes Booth. Many know that the play the Lincolns were watching was called “Our American Cousin.”
It’s safe to say that few events in our history have been as thoroughly researched as the assassination of the nation’s 16th president. In other words, nothing new is revealed in the National Geographic Channel’s first scripted special, “Killing Lincoln,” airing Sunday night.
But that doesn’t mean the decently-written and adequately performed docudrama is unwelcome. Narrated by Tom Hanks and adapted by Erik Jendresen from the book by newsman Bill O’Reilly, the film details the events leading up to that night in April, as well as the aftermath during which the government launched an extensive manhunt for Booth and his co-conspirators, leading to Booth’s death 12 days after the shooting and the execution of several who aided his escape.
Billy Campbell plays Lincoln, with Jesse Johnson portraying Booth. Both actors stick to the script, not only the script for the show but the more important historical script. Campbell’s Lincoln is convincing, but somehow doesn’t quite replicate the war-weary, drained image conveyed in the last photographs of Lincoln. Booth, a member of one of the nation’s great theatrical families, never seems to be offstage. The theatricality of Johnson’s line delivery leaves us wanting to know more about the man beneath the declamations.
Any depiction of a historical event, especially a tragic one, may prompt us to consider how things might have turned out differently. And so it is with “Killing Lincoln.” What if Booth, who can be seen on the steps of the Capitol during Lincoln’s second inauguration in an ancient photograph, had chosen that occasion to try to kill the president? What if Booth hadn’t stopped in at Ford’s Theater on the day of the assassination to learn that the president would attend “Our American Cousin” that night, instead of following through with previously announced plans to see a play about Aladdin’s magic lamp at Grover’s Theater?
And as for the off-quoted – and perhaps misquoted – pronouncement by Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton after Lincoln drew his last breath, if only stenographer James Tanner’s pencil not broken at that precise moment, we would know for certain whether Stanton said, “Now he belongs to the ages” or, as some reported, “Now he belongs to the angels.”
“Killing Lincoln” is yet another reminder that history is made up of events both monumental and petty, of complex intentions and unforeseen circumstances, and that their occurrence can never be undone, but is often subject to interpretation and misunderstanding.