8 p.m. Sunday, National Geographic Channel
With Daniel Day-Lewis favored 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,” based on Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard’s novel; it premieres 8 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. The Hanks segments 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. The larger problem with “Killing Lincoln” lies not in its writing but its presentation.
Campbell, seen not long ago in “The Killing,” is a good actor. (I am less convinced of Johnson’s skills.) Campbell has a knack for conveying a pained vulnerability, which is sometimes used in his Lincoln performance. 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.” One of the challenges is many viewers will come to it with memories of the more textured and better acted big-screen “Lincoln.” But taken on its own, “Killing Lincoln” is moderately interesting in its information but lacking in its attempts at drama.