Lincoln returns

President Abraham Lincoln, always a beloved political figure, is enjoying a resurgence of popularity, with a new film about the 16th president airing Sunday night on National Geographic Channel.

“Killing Lincoln” focuses on the events surrounding Lincoln’s assassination, and is based on a book of the same name by Fox News anchor Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard. It will air just a week before Steven Spielberg’s film about the president competes for an Academy Award.

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Actor Billy Campbell, who plays Lincoln, isn’t worried about any comparisons to the Spielberg film or the performance by Daniel Day-Lewis, who is favored to take home an Oscar.  

“It’s just not something I think about,” he told The Hill on Monday, after lunching with reporters at — where else — D.C.’s Lincoln Restaurant.

“It makes no sense on any level. It’s a slippery slope when you start thinking of other people playing things. If his movie had come out first and I could have gone to watch it and steal some stuff, I would have been happy to do it. But there was no opportunity for thievery, so I don’t think about it.”

Campbell had 10 days to prepare for the part. Fortunately he already had a beard, but he said there are other things he would have done to enhance his portrayal of the political icon if he’d had the time.

“I would have lost 40 pounds if I had more time,” he said, pointing out he and Lincoln are the same height but that he weighs more than the famously gaunt president.

“Killing Lincoln” is the National Geographic Channel’s first scripted drama, but “docudrama” may be a more accurate description of the two-hour film.

The story begins in the days leading up to Lincoln’s assassination, and continues on to the death of John Wilkes Booth, who eluded capture for 12 days after he killed the president.

“We focus on the assassination attempt and the last two weeks of [Lincoln’s] life. So it’s very condensed, very focused,” said actor Josh Murray, who plays co-conspirator Lewis Powell.

“I think what most Lincoln stories miss is the magnitude of the conspiracy. It wasn’t just about Lincoln,” he said, “it was about wiping out the entire administration, and it was about toppling the U.S. government.”

Action veers back-and-forth between on-camera narration by Tom Hanks and the actors playing out the story. The movie runs like as a tick-tock of the historical event, with Hanks literally counting down the hours Lincoln has left to live.

Hanks also offers an array of factoids surrounding the assassination, noting Lincoln had dreamed of his death in the days beforehand, that no two witnesses to the assassination gave the same account, and other tidbits. (One particularly interesting bit: the body of Booth was photographed as doctors conducted a post-mortem, but the picture has been lost to history.)

Screenwriter Erik Jendresen called his script experimental.

“To have a narrator, who’s actually an engaged storyteller, who’s talking right down the barrel of the camera, who’s fully connected to the story, almost as if he’s watching it with you ... was almost a new approach,” he said.

“I love it,” Campbell said of the format.

“In a documentary they’d spend most of their time with the talking heads, and if you saw any acting it would be in the background and it would be under the voice of the narrators. There is actually less narration in this film then your typical documentary, but it’s all coming from one person.”

Director Adrian Moat said it was no problem getting Hanks, who is a Lincoln buff, to narrate the film. Hanks is also “a descendant of the Lincoln family,” Moat said. 

Hanks is Lincoln’s third cousin, four times removed of the president via his mother, Nancy Hanks.

“He was genuinely interested in the subject matter,” Moat said, adding “he was the perfect storyteller.”

O’Reilly’s book was criticized for having historical inaccuracies — such as referring to Lincoln as being in the Oval Office, which wasn’t built until years after his death — but film makers brushed aside questions on that topic.

“A lot was made of those,” Jendresen said when asked about the inaccuracies. “A lot of it was unkind because, unavoidably, the publication was politicized because Bill tends to be a lightening rod.”

The cast and crew were in Washington on Monday night for the film’s premiere at National Geographic Headquarters.

They followed in the footsteps of Spielberg and Day-Lewis in promoting their work in the nation’s capital. The two men brought “Lincoln” to the Senate in December for a screening with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and other lawmakers.

Meanwhile, it was a return to familiar territory for Campbell, who grew up in Charlottesville, Va., and filmed the movie in Richmond.

A self-described “Civil War buff,” Campbell said Lincoln was his favorite president.

“I feel that I have a better sense of Lincoln as a person now then I had before,” he said. “He wasn’t always carved in stone of the face of Mount Rushmore — he was a living, flesh-and-blood human being.”

But just because he played the president doesn’t mean Campbell is thinking about going into politics.

“No, absolutely not,” he said.

“Killing Lincoln” airs Sunday night at 8 p.m. Eastern Standard Time on the National Geographic Channel.