Killing Lincoln movie brings Bill O’Reilly’s book to the screen

Killing Lincoln movie brings Bill O’Reilly’s controversial book to the screen on National Geographic Channel Sunday, Feb. 17.

Killing Lincoln movie

By Kate O’Hare

On a sultry summer day in Richmond, Va. — the Confederate capital during the Civil War — a film crew has gathered at a historic building refitted to look like a telegraph office. The scene being shot features Abraham Lincoln (Billy Campbell) receiving a message and then discussing it with Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (Graham Beckel).

Despite the sweltering heat, the bearded men wear waistcoats and jackets, and the women are decked out in period dresses with corsets. The only person who seems comfortable is local actor Benjamin Perkinson as Lincoln’s young son, Tad, with his little suit and slicked-back hair.

In production is National Geographic Channel’s Killing Lincoln (Sunday, Feb. 17, at 8pm ET), a two-hour nonfiction thriller based on the best-selling book of the same name by Fox News Channel anchor Bill O’Reilly (The O’Reilly Factor) and historian/researcher Martin Dugard. The film is narrated by Tom Hanks and executive produced by brothers Ridley Scott and the late Tony Scott for Scott Free Productions, in partnership with National Geographic Channel. The film chronicles the final days of Lincoln’s life and the treasonous plot by one of the most notorious, complex villains of all time.

Crammed with cameras, crew and cast, a scene is being shot between Lincoln assassin John Wilkes Booth (Jesse Johnson, son of actor Don Johnson) and his sister, Asia (Sara Eshleman). It features Wilkes singing a song whose lyrics were uncovered during research for the movie. It’s a sad scene, in which Asia realizes that her brother’s fanaticism will ultimately be his undoing.

A bit later on, when the crew breaks for lunch, Beckel, who has just arrived that day, gets to meet Johnson for the first time. He’s flabbergasted by his resemblance to the real Booth. Johnson (who grew a mustache and had his blond hair dyed dark for the role) pulls up a photograph on his phone to show Beckel the inspiration for his look.

Asked how the fairly tall Beckel managed to look much shorter than Campbell — apparently Stanton was not nearly Lincoln’s height — Beckel (brother of liberal commentator Bob Beckel of Fox News’ The Five) winks and says, “Movie magic.”

As an actor playing an assassin who was an actor, Johnson says, “The prevailing image of Booth is one of a two-dimensional, mustache-twirling villain. My job was to dig deeper, show that he was as complex a Shakespearean character as portrayed on the stage.”

As rain begins to fall outside, the movie caravan moves to a series of what may have been cotton or grain storehouses next to some railroad tracks, where Campbell is shooting a scene in which Lincoln poses for photographs with Tad.

Already tall, Campbell (The Killing) has had gray added to his hair, grown a beard and had makeup create the dark, war-weary shadowing around Lincoln’s eyes. While he didn’t have time to lose weight for the role as the rail-thin Lincoln, the resemblance, even close up between takes, is remarkable.

Says Campbell, “We felt it was important to convey this hidden side of Lincoln, this sense of his almost wasting away with premonitions of death, even as he was outwardly so poised and steadfast through the closing of the war.”

Photo: Credit: National Geographic Channels