Like its predecessors “Killing Lincoln” and “Killing Kennedy,” “Killing Jesus,” from the book by Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard, has become a National Geographic Channel TV movie. It premieres Sunday, surely not by coincidence a week before Easter.
As in their other books, the authors go for a you-are-there approach, writing in the present tense, with intermittent allusions to how many years, months or days their subject has left to live. They fill in their narrative with sections about Roman politics and daily life in old Israel, but much of what they include has for authority only the Bible, and while this is the only authority some need, there is, let’s say, room for scholarly argument.
Nevertheless, the film, like the book, except for some marveling at prophecies fulfilled, sticks mostly with what might be called Jesus’ human activity. There is no Annunciation, no animal-attended Nativity, no jousting with the devil in the wilderness. There is some minor wonderment, but the more miraculous miracles — walking on water, loaves and fishes, raising the dead — remain offstage, invisible and legendary.
Though it presumes to know the mind of its characters, the book does stick to biblical sources for its dialogue. A movie is a different animal; the authors of the Gospels did not write long scenes full of banter and psychology.
Walon Green, who wrote “The Wild Bunch,” followed by many episodes of various cop shows, has been hired to supply the spoken words. Sometimes they’re funny, when they are probably not meant to be, as with Salome and her scheming mother (Stephanie Leonidas and Emmanuelle Chriqui), who come off like something out of an upper-income reality show, or at the aborted stoning of the adulterous woman:
One man hands another a stone: “Here, kill her.”
The other man hands it back: “You kill her.”
Kelsey Grammer is Herod, in a long wig and beard. Rufus Sewell as the high priest Caiaphas gets the most out of his part by never breathing hard, plus he’s given at least a decent motivation — he’s trying to protect his people by helping to maintain order. He is not merely an excuse for a couple of thousand years of anti-Semitism.
Pilate (Stephen Moyer, from “True Blood”) is, as usual, let halfway off the hook, succumbing reluctantly and a little petulantly to the demands of the crowd (the Barabbas episode is missing), then lighting out quick as you may for the sea breezes of Caesarea with his hot wife, Claudia (Tamsin Egerton).
Lebanese American actor Haaz Sleiman plays Jesus, and it is nice at least to see a Jesus of color and more or less local origin (he was born in Beirut, 150 miles from Bethlehem) instead of the white, sometimes very white, Christ so often offered. He is a little unprepossessing for a man who stirred the multitudes, but this is true generally of the film.
Indeed, one of the problems of an “authentic” approach, barring a vision commensurate with the original material — even one that argues with the material — is that you risk killing the poetry that makes it fly in the first place. Jesus hits a few of his main talking points (first stone, do unto others, turn cheek), but only a fraction and not the most subtle of them. And neither Sleiman nor the script nor director Christopher Menaul lifts the story off the ground.
There is some drama worked up in spots — the overturning of the tables of the moneylenders, the scourging, the Crucifixion — but mostly we are left to fill in the spiritual blanks. Some viewers will doubtlessly be moved, but it will be more from what they bring to the table than what has been laid out for them.
Where: National Geographic Channel
When: 8 p.m. Sunday
Rating: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14)