Film Review: Saving Lincoln

The latest entry in a plethora of films about Abraham Lincoln—this one focusing on his “best friend” and bodyguard—is weakened by a bare-bones script, but greatly strengthened by the director’s invention of a visual techni

Director Salvador Litvak calls it “CineCollage,” the technique he developed to “borrow” from other visual arts—“painting, photography, animation, stereoscopy and VFX compositing”—to create the unique visual ambiance in Saving Lincoln. Basically, this means he shot this entire film in one room, with the actors performing in front of a green-screen background, which was filled in with photos and other visual representations from the Civil War period.

Green-screen technology is not new, of course, as some of the biggest hits of recent years have used it to create preposterous action sequences that could not happen in real life. But to our knowledge, no director has gone so far back—150 years—to find real images depicting real events and real people and try to bring those images to life again by letting contemporary actors actually live in them. For some scenes, Civil War photos were broken up and pieces of them were enlarged into real 3D “props” so the actors could move around them.

Thus, we see the actor Tom Amandes (playing Lincoln) standing in a real Civil War battlefield or sitting at his desk near the windows of the actual White House, circa 1861. There are scenes in actual hospital rooms of the era, with actors who are playing wounded soldiers juxtaposed next to the real wounded soldiers who are long dead. Even when there are no actors in the foreground, some of the static photos—such as aerial views showing an unfinished Washington Monument and an unfinished White House—appear to be in movement thanks to that old zoom-in/zoom-out camera trick.

All of this technical stuff may prove so fascinating to some viewers that they’ll quite forget to pay attention to the plot of Saving Lincoln. It centers on the long relationship between Lincoln and Ward Hill Lamon (Lea Coco), a friend and colleague who appointed himself the president’s bodyguard after the first assassination attempt in 1861. Evidently Lincoln simply liked having Lamon around—he enjoyed his banjo playing and his jokes, and greatly appreciated his ability to handle a gun. The irony of Lamon’s story was that one of the few occasions he was not by Lincoln’s side was the night the President went to Ford’s Theatre.

The main fault with the script—by Litvak and his wife Nina Davidovich—is that it tries to pack in too much history, racing past important events without putting them in context. But it also reveals some interesting, little-known facts—e.g., that it was the bodyguard Lamon who introduced Lincoln when he gave that famous speech at Gettysburg. Or that during the Washington, D.C. celebration marking the end of the Civil War, Lincoln ordered the military band to play “Dixie,” while he himself led the singing of the South’s most patriotic song.

Saving Lincoln is a small, unpretentious film that cannot compare in quality or artistry to Steven Spielberg’s loftier, far more expensive and wildly more successful Lincoln. But this one does have some pluses: Despite working under difficult circumstances, the cast achieves several truly effective moments, and Tom Amandes actually does a pretty good job in capturing Lincoln’s humanity—his sense of fun, his thoughtfulness. It’s just too bad he had to follow Daniel Day-Lewis in the role.

And it would be too bad if audiences reject Saving Lincoln out of hand, either because it’s a low-budget production by little-known talents, or simply because they’ve seen quite enough of our 16th president this year. (There’s also a concurrent TV movie called Killing Lincoln.) However, Litvak’s so-called CineCollage technique does offer the serious filmgoer a new and different kind of cinematic experience. By using the eerie white flatness of mid-19th-century photos (the cameras of the day required long exposures that could not capture contrast in the sky) as background, and by adding a deliberately washed-out, sepia tone to the live action in the foreground—well, the combined visual effect is dreamy, almost subliminal. If you’re terribly susceptible to this sort of thing, you may think you’re somehow remembering actual events—which come back to you in quick, unrelated glimpses, as memories are wont to do. Truly fascinating.