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How National Geographic’s ‘Killing Lincoln’ Tries to Find a New Way to Put History on Screen

How National Geographic's 'Killing Lincoln' Tries to Find a New Way to Put History on Screen

Don’t call it a docudrama. Premiering on Sunday, February 17th at 8pm, “Killing Lincoln” is National Geographic’s first real venture into scripted television, aside from November’s “Zero Dark Thirty Lite” acquired feature “Seal Team Six: The Raid on Osama Bin Laden.” The new movie about the assassination of Abraham Lincoln doesn’t take the typical approach to a historical drama. Written by Erik Jendresen (“Band of Brothers”) and directed by Adrian Moat (“Gettyburg”), “Killing Lincoln” is based on Bill O’Reilly’s nonfiction bestseller of the same name, though the Fox News host had no direct involvement in the TV movie, which was handled by Ridley Scott’s Scott Free Productions. It takes place in what’s left as an ellipsis in Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln,” delving into the conspiracy headed by John Wilkes Booth (Jesse Johnson) that lead up to the murder of President Lincoln (Billy Campbell) and the simultaneous gruesome attempt on the life of Secretary of State William H. Seward (Ted Johnson), detailing Lincoln’s death, Booth’s flight and his eventual demise at a tobacco farm in Virginia less than two weeks later.

Aside from the appeal to the Lincoln completists and history buffs who’ve made Washington, D.C. area landmarks like the Ford Theatre, the Surratt House and Lincoln’s Cottage at Soldiers’ Home living tributes to the man’s life, “Killing Lincoln” is most interesting in its unusual form — hence the difficulty its creators have had in describing it. It was conceived as and feels like a hybrid between a documentary and a drama. It uses actors, and scripted dialogue fills in the gaps between what’s on record, but it also has a narrator, Tom Hanks, appearing on screen to explain the action when needed. It’s a film that tries to get as close to a recreation of the events as they actually occurred, with no inconvenient developments elided or characters blended together to make the story neater.

When it comes to portrayals of historic events on screen, explained Jendresen, there have generally been two options. “You have a feature film in which, invariably, authenticity is sacrificed for the sake of narrative. I don’t think audiences respond to a Hollywood film about history in any way that it’s authentic because they know that liberties have been taken with it. The second option is you have a standard docudrama with some talking heads historians and some phony baloney, out of focus recreation stuff going on in the background.” In “Killing Lincoln,” he and director Moat aimed for something in which there’d be no narrative compromises or inventions, no impactful but unlikely opening scenes of a Union soldier quoting Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address back to him for historians to quibble with.

Jendresen sees the form of “Killing Lincoln” as a way to allow for something that’s like a feature without any fudging of the facts — attention to detail was foremost, with the narrator serving to offer additional context to viewers and smooth the way between scenes not altered to fit more seamlessly together. Jendresen spent months researching the film, piecing together memoirs and letters of various accounts of events in order to “get as close to definitive as possible,” acknowledging that everything is a subjective experience while aiming for precision — right down to the titles of the books that were on Seward’s end table when he was attacked by would-be assassin Lewis Powell (Josh Murray).

Putting the demands of the accounts of the era above those of the film as a watchable whole is an aim that will sound appealing and understandable foremost to history devotees (and one that may come across as a little alarming to everyone else), but it appears less specialized and more understandable when placed in contrast to the debates surrounding “Zero Dark Thirty,” a work about a much more recent death whose mixture of journalistic research and fuzzier filmishness has fueled intense discussion of accuracy and responsibility to the audience. As Jendresen pointed out, every movie “based on a true story” plays loose with at least some facts to make for a better, easier narrative. When has any filmmaker aimed for the unvarnished truth, making all other considerations secondary?

“We set out at the beginning to structure a story that used all the facts,” Moat explained, “and for us to put them together in a way that made for an entertaining drama.” In the early stages, this meant that the tough decisions were centered around what to leave out rather than what to include — and that meant shedding the original concept to have interludes with historians guiding the film. They instead approached Hanks, who’d worked with Jendresen on “Band of Brothers,” because they “wanted a storyteller who was not going to pontificate over the facts, just give them, and allow the story to continue. He would lead out of a piece of drama into further narrative of the story, and then lead back into the next piece of drama.”

Moat felt that most traditional docudramas just created “visual wallpaper for the information, and they don’t get into the real power of cinema or television — there always feels like there’s something missing.” For Moat, the approach of “Killing Lincoln” offered a chance to engage with something that “had living characters in front of the camera, that could not only portray the realities of what took place but give us an emotional value and allow the audience to be sucked right into the period.”

As much as the National Geographic Channel has shifted over the years since its launch in 1997, moving away from the nature and cultural programming for which it was originally known to include reality series like “Doomsday Preppers” and “Border Wars,” scripted fare is a new frontier for the brand — a responsibility of which the makers of “Killing Lincoln” were very aware. Both Jendresen and Moat expressed the respect they’ve had for National Geographic, the magazine, with Moat noting that being inside the company’s signature yellow box signalled to people that they should “believe in this, because this is going to be right.” In that context, something existing halfway between narrative and documentary is a logical initial foray into the world of scripted programming.

NatGeo’s CEO David Lyle agreed, saying that “We felt that it’s true to the essential spirit of National Geographic Channel.” He suggested “Killing Lincoln” be thought of as “factual drama — it works emotionally, but it’s based very much in fact. There are no flights of fantasy, no hidden love story, nothing that someone’s dreamed up to make it more entertaining.” For the right story, he continued, the pull is already there, with no need for embellishment, and he was glad to see the film turn out as a drama first rather than a documentary with reenactments. The network’s happy enough with the result to have already given the greenlight to “Killing Kennedy,” based on another book by O’Reilly about the assassination of JFK, and planned to be made in the same style as “Killing Lincoln,” a hybrid approach the channel clearly wants to have a stake in as its own.

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