Rendered without much embellishment and acted with firmly controlled vigor, Killing Jesus, a TV adaptation of the bestselling book by Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard, is a fine retelling of the story of Jesus Christ as a historical figure.
Related: Bill O’Reilly: Selling Jesus
That last phrase is key. O’Reilly and his co-author sought to write only what they considered provable historical facts about Christ. Whether this has been accomplished I’ll leave to historians and theologians, but I can say that the way this approach translates onscreen results in an admirable lack of florid melodrama or grand, special-effects Jesus-miracles. The only showboater in the bunch is Kelsey Grammer’s King Herod, and that’s not because of Grammer’s performance, which is efficiently grim, but because his costume seems to want a career of its own: a big, soup-pot gilded crown, and gaudy garments that look like a few enormous Persian rugs stapled together.
Haaz Sleiman plays Jesus Christ as a thoughtful yet energetic man, always on the move, eager to engage with everyone, from his budding disciples to the high-born officials (including True Blood’s Stephen Moyer as Pontius Pilate) who will eventually crucify him. Sleiman’s Jesus is allowed to show regular flashes of humor along with compassion and wisdom, and his periodic displays of anger — such as when he overturns the tables of the money-changers in the temple — are welcome shadings in a fully fleshed-out character.
The author of this TV-movie is screenwriter Walon Green, who adapted the book. Green wrote the screenplay for Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch, an achievement guarantees his place in cinematic history; he’s also done fine, terse work on TV’s Law & Order franchise. Green’s Killing Jesus adaptation layers in all the key moments and familiar phrases we know from the Jesus of the New Testament, but unlike so many other religious dramas, he doesn’t underscore them with melodramatic pauses for emphasis.
In this manner, Killing Jesus does what it sets out to do — engage you in the life and death of a revolutionary, rebellious figure whose chief crime was to insist that all people ought to practice principles of love and forgiveness.