I must confess my expectations were pretty low going into 'Killing Lincoln.' Although I have not read the book (co-authored by Bill O'Reilly and Martin Dugard) upon which this movie is based, I presumed this was just a fly-by-night production slapped together to capitalize off of all the goodwill being heaped upon the theatrical release of Steven Spielberg's Lincoln. I couldn't have been further from the truth. While 'Killing Lincoln' can't compare to Spielberg's movie in terms of dramatic presentation, the theatrical film doesn't match this one when it comes to historical accuracy. That, and the fact that it mostly covers material not touched upon in Spielberg's film, makes this a perfect companion piece.
What I really liked about 'Killing Lincoln' and what really sets it aside from other movies we've seen about the Lincoln assassination is the way the movie is presented. It's neither a straightforward drama nor a documentary. It's not even a docudrama. Instead we have Tom Hanks (who's actually a direct descendent of Abraham Lincoln's mother, Nancy Hanks, making him a distant cousin, several times removed, of Abe) as the storyteller providing us with details about what we're watching. But his comments aren't just done through voice-over narration, we break away from the dramatic presentation and see Hanks talking directly into the camera about the events happening. It's unlike any historical movie I can recall, and it adds a wonderful personalization for the viewer…we're getting a history lesson from one of our greatest actors.
Although it's called 'Killing Lincoln,' a more appropriate name for the movie (and, I'm guessing, the book as well) would be 'Killing Booth,' as this is essentially his story. Played here by the relatively unknown Jesse Johnson (he's the son of Don Johnson), the movie and the portrayal is smart enough that we never sympathize with Booth, but we are given a better understanding of his motivations. The Lincoln of 'Killing Lincoln' is sadly little more here than the person that sets the events into motion. Played by Billy Campbell in makeup that gives us what Abraham Lincoln might have looked like if he was bulkier and better looking, we don't learn much about Lincoln through the character himself. Instead, we come to understand Lincoln through the people that surround him.
'Killing Lincoln' does a great job of showing how large the conspiracy to kill Lincoln was without making the details of the plot confusing. Booth was no "lone gunman," and the movie also depicts the brutal attack on Secretary of State William Seward by co-conspirator Lewis Powell. Seward amazingly survived the assault, while Vice President Andrew Johnson avoided an assassination attempt on his life when co-conspirator George Atzerodt could not muster the courage to go through with his part of the plan and instead spent the night getting drunk.
A great amount of work has been done by the filmmakers to make sure 'Killing Lincoln' is as accurate as possible. Even when historical accounts conflict – as is the case with what Booth may have actually said/done after he shot Lincoln – the movie goes out of its way to note how unreliable witnesses can be, then shows us about a half dozen different things that Booth may have done, going off first-hand accounts of those who were in Ford's Theater that night. Remember Edwin Stanton's famous remark upon Lincoln's death of "Now he belongs to the ages"? Here, we learn that Stanton may have – and probably did – say "angels" instead of "ages." Again, the movie presents both to us…the actor playing Stanton (Graham Beckel) saying "ages," and then Tom Hanks telling viewers the historical record.
As I noted earlier in this review, I have yet to read 'Killing Lincoln,' but I have read James L. Swanson's 'Manhunt,' which also details the assassination conspiracy and the search for Booth that followed, as well as a lot of more general texts about the events. From that limited study, I can relay that 'Killing Lincoln' is one of the most spot-on accurate portrayals of history ever put on film. For that reason alone, it makes this movie a must-own.
The Blu-Ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Killing Lincoln' comes to Blu-ray in an eco-friendly keepcase housing the single, 50GB dual-layer disc and an insert containing the promotional code for an UltraViolet Digital HD copy of the movie. The disc is front-loaded with an advertisement for 'What is the Blu-ray Experience,' along with trailers for Atlas Shrugged II, The Bible, and The Oranges. The menu features a video montage of scenes from the movie, with menu selections along the bottom of the screen.
'Killing Lincoln' was shot on the RED Epic digital camera, so the transfer here comes straight from the digital source. Viewers will immediately notice a great deal of banding around light sources in the movie, particularly candlelight in dimly-lit scenes. This appears to be a cinematic choice by the filmmakers and not a problem with the transfer. Colors have been drained from the movie's palette, and are subdued, given a very "historical" look and feel to the proceedings. There has been no attempt by the filmmakers to give 'Killing Lincoln' a film-like presentation, so digital grain (sometimes inserted into HD-shot movies) is non-existent here.
Skin tones and contrast is consistent, and a good level of detail can be seen, although compared to most shot-in-HD productions, 'Killing Lincoln' provides somewhat of a "soft" presentation throughout. Black levels are decent, but the overall softness of the presentation sometimes presents problems in darker scenes (and a great deal of the second half of 'Killing Lincoln' takes place at night). The movie is presented in the 1.78:1 aspect ratio.
For a made-for-television production, the English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track is impressive. It makes good use of both directionality and imaging, with the rear speakers being much more active than you would think for a movie such as this one. Balance is also well-done, with sound effects and other peripheral noises never becoming too loud or overbearing when compared to the dialogue of the movie. I noted no defects or drop-outs in the lossless track, which is the only audio option on this disc (other than the provided commentary).
Subtitles are available in English SDH, Spanish and French.
I'm guessing there's a lot of people out there who haven't seen 'Killing Lincoln,' either because they thought it would pale in comparison to Steven Spielberg's movie or because their politics are diametrically opposed to Bill O'Reilly and assumed the movie would be injected with some sort of right-wing message. Neither of those are true, and neither of those should stop you from what turns out to be a remarkably well-done look at Lincoln's assassination and the hunt for the killer that followed. This is recommended.