Director: Salvador Litvak
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Film Pulse Score: 4/10
It can be tricky when a viewer goes into a historical biopic, especially when it is about a person no one, except maybe for scholars, has ever heard of. Even though a film may open with the title card “Based on a true story” in this situation often times one is left to wonder just how much is true and how much is dramatic license. It can be even more problematic when your film opens on the heels of one involving your central character. Comparisons become inevitable.
Salvador Litvak’s Saving Lincoln looks at one such person. Ward Hill Lamon was one of Lincoln’s closest friends, his self-appointed bodyguard and a US Marshall. The film essentially serves as a Cliff Notes version of their life together as it goes from one historical event to another. History says Lamon was not in Washington on the night of April 14, 1865 and the film sets out to explain why.
On paper this has the makings for a great film. If you do your research you will see that Lamon is indeed a true historical figure whose story hasn’t been given the cinematic treatment until now. His life and his relationship with Lincoln would easily make for a great drama or better yet a mini-series. However what I’m sure was intended to be an epic historical biography is marred by so many problems that it is incredibly unfortunate. This had potential but in my eyes was given the wrong treatment.
Before I get to the acting and directing I must address the film’s major problem. How it was shot. Instead of a traditionally shot period drama we are given, from what I understand, a 100% green screen period drama. What? Yes, the film was shot on a green screen stage in Los Angeles and the actors were dropped into the environments. Not as polished as say Sin City but closer to the look of Mutant Chronicles. The intended selling point is that these environments are created from actual Civil War photographs and they serve as the backdrops for countless scenes. It was a novel idea but I’m sure the producers must have known just how distracting it would be. For example, there is a scene where Lincoln is debating with a candidate. In the foreground you see live people watching but in the background behind the stage you see people just standing there and then you realize it’s just a picture. The unintended effect is it makes it look cheap and detracts from the drama. I was focusing on the picture and not what Lincoln was saying. Fail. This pretty much sums up the film as this occurs often. There was one brilliant moment though where we see the taking of the famous Antietam photograph. As it is about to be taken we are shown the context of the photo. It was taken in the midst of a heated argument between Lincoln and a General and the two stopped for the picture, glaring at each other for those ten seconds. I won’t see that picture the same way ever again. That is about the only time it seemed to work. Throughout the film I simply couldn’t adjust to seeing the melding of a period drama with the overtly green screen backgrounds. It took me out of the film more often than not.
Considering how it was shot Litvak did a decent job of directing, after all he maintained a sense that these people were in fact in those environments. The screenplay was actually pretty good but as I mentioned it felt very much like a Cliff Notes version of their lives. This would have been better served as a History Channel mini-series or something. As for the acting it is on the History Channel recreation kind of level. It’s unfair to compare Tom Amandes’ portrayal of Lincoln to Daniel Day-Lewis’ but it is unavoidable. That being said Amandes’ approach is different but he still does a good job of conveying the man as flawed and human. Lea Coco held his own as Lamon but many of his funny reactions to some events felt a bit sit-comish. Oddly, whenever I saw him with the mustache I kept seeing Johnny Knoxville, I don’t know why but that’s who I saw. I can’t say the same for Penelope Ann Miller who is pretty forgettable as Mary Todd Lincoln. Now the chemistry between Amandes and Coco is quite good but again the whole look of the film can often distract you from actually noticing that.
In the end the gimmick greatly distracts from the story. I knew nothing of Lamon and really wanted to know more but what I saw was a pastiche of events in front of authentic photographs. This would have been better served if it were shot traditionally like Spielberg’s Lincoln. Instead we are left with a novelty piece about a person whose story deserves to be properly told. It’s too bad, if this was shot traditionally I would’ve liked it much, much more.