Saving Lincoln

Sal Litvak’s [interview with Sal here] independent movie about Lincoln, Saving Lincoln, came on the heels of Steven Spielberg’s magnificent tour de force, and so it inevitably was unfairly compared with that masterpiece.  The low budget with which Litvak worked necessarily limited the effects and the pricey talent available to him.  The movie looks at Abraham Lincoln’s life from Illinois lawyer to murdered President through the eyes of Ward Hill Lamon, who was his law partner in Illinois and a self-appointed bodyguard in Washington.  Some of the effects were very cheesy, such as when Lincoln and Lamon are riding in a carriage on the way to meet McClellan after the Battle of Antietam and  you can easily see they’re in a stationary carriage being rocked up and down while the scenery moves around them.

Litvak’s movie is creatively done in a style he calls CineCollage.  The movie was filmed in front of a green screen and actual photos from the 1860s were used as the background.  So you see the actors and some props in color, but the background is black and white.  It gives the film an odd quality that sets it apart from just about every other movie, but it also means that the background you see isn’t a set director’s idea of what the 1860s looked like, but the actual 1860s.  While it was distracting at first, once you get used to it I think it works very well.

This is a movie, not a history book, and sometimes the historical errors are just mind-boggling, such as Lamon telling Lincoln that he was going to be “marshal of ceremonies” for the dedication of the cemetery at Gettysburg and then Lamon inviting Lincoln to go with him to present a few appropriate remarks.  Tom Amandes, who plays Lincoln, has a voice that is too deep.

See another review here.

Altogether, I liked the movie.  It’s not going to compare favorably with Spielberg’s Lincoln, but there are more entertaining parts than groaning parts.  Penelope Ann Miller, I thought, gave a terrific performance as Mary Lincoln.  While Amandes’ voice is too deep, he also gives a creditable performance as Lincoln.  Lea Coco is Lamon, and he does a good job as well, particularly in  handling the banjo.  There are some glaring weaknesses.  There seems to be no effort put forth to make historical characters look authentic.  At least Lincoln has his beard and was clean-shaven prior to his arrival in Washington to be inaugurated.  But the actors playing Stephen Douglas, Salmon Chase, Charles Sumner, William Seward, and others look nothing like their historical characters.  In listening to the commentary, it’s obvious Nina Litvak, Sal’s wife and collaborator in the movie, has learned a little history but mixes it up quite a bit.  Sal’s historical understanding is much better than Nina’s, and thankfully he guided the movie in a far better historical direction than Nina would have.  See the movie, but realize that this is a Lincoln movie unlike any other Lincoln movie you’ve seen before, that it may be a bit disconcerting to you, but ultimately there are moving scenes and scenes that will make you smile.  Not everyone will like the movie.  There were parts I didn’t like.  But it at least gives us a very creative approach to making this movie.

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6 comments

  1. Thanks for this. I watched the trailer. Do you think it will come on PBS? Nancy

    Sent from my iPhone

    1. No, I don’t think so. I think it will follow the same path as Spielberg’s movie.

  2. Hi Al, thanks for taking a look at our film, Saving Lincoln. So glad you enjoyed the performances, story and CineCollage look. We’re very proud to be the only feature film in 80 years to cover Lincoln’s whole presidency, and to do it from Lamon’s unique perspective.

    If I may clarify a couple of points: Governor Curtin and the other organizers of the Gettysburg dedication were nothing if not savvy politicians. They did indeed invite Lamon to be Master of Ceremonies several weeks before extending the official invitation to Lincoln. Now, was Lamon such a sought-after emcee as to be the go-to guy for an event of national importance? Or was he the presidential pal who could be asked to work the back door channel? We believe the latter, and so do our advisors, Harold Holzer, Brooks D. Simpson, and others.

    Regarding the physical appearance of our supporting players, I freely admit I chose acting ability and theater experience (due to the demands of CineCollage) over physiognomy. We do take historicity very seriously, however, as your readers will see on Facebook.com/SavingLincoln. Our 65,000+ fans appreciate Nina’s tireless work on the page because it is NOT the typical film site that refers only to itself. Nina posts new material EVERY DAY about the Civil War, Lincoln and our veterans, even though our film premiered nine months ago. She pours her heart and soul into that effort, and I applaud her for it. Which is not to say we never make mistakes. We do, and we welcome your learned voice to the conversation! Have a great Sunday and a happy Thanksgiving!

    1. Hi, Sal. Thanks for taking the time to comment. At first I thought the appearance of the film was really strange, but I did get used to it, and I appreciated the use of photographs from the time period. As to Lamon inviting Lincoln, I don’t really buy it at this time. I don’t discount their inviting Lamon to sweeten the pot for Lincoln, but as we learned last week, papers were reporting well ahead of time that Lincoln was going to be at the dedication. The film made it seem as though the invitation came solely from Lamon, and we know that’s not the case. Another instance I noticed was Lincoln saying those that don’t skin can hold a leg to McClellan. That came only with Grant, which you correctly showed later on, though not in the same way it’s normally explained. Close enough, though. I hope I wasn’t too hard on Nina. I only meant to say that some of the things in the commentary she said just weren’t correct, historically speaking. I’m absolutely certain she was indispensable in bringing the film to reality and is completely dedicated to it. I didn’t mean to say anything different than that, but I do stand by my assessment of the commentary. And I can’t say enough about Penelope Ann Miller’s performance as Mary Lincoln. I can’t compare it with Sally Field’s performance in the Steven Spielberg film because while they were the same character, I thought the roles were very different. One thing that didn’t ring true, was her singing along with Lincoln on the train ride. The historical Mary strikes me as too dignified. I imagine her strategizing with Lincoln during the train ride. All my best and thanks again for the autograph on the DVD.

  3. As a student of Civil war history, I can lay claim to this one truth: sometimes we get things wrong. As more and more information about the war is uncovered, from people’s attics to technology identifying DNA of png-dead soldiers, from revising the traditional counting of casualties upward by almost 200,000 to trying to find Stonewall’s arm–the lens is always changing, and it is a kaleidoscopic ride indeed!

    Sal and Nina probably suspected that they had entered a vortex when they began their movie, but look at the energy now! Most movie-makers make a film & move on to the next project. The Litvaks seem well on the road to becoming Civil War historians who express their work through movies. I, for one, look forward to their next offering. There will be “mistakes” there as well, just as they occur in every thesis and dissertation. We are only fools when we don’t admit they happen, try to fix them, and move forward.

    Huzzah!

    1. Thanks for the comment, Meg. I think we always have to keep in mind that it’s a movie whose first goal is entertainment. Of course, any review by someone who looks at the world through the lens of history is going to mention historical accuracy, especially when so many people seem to get their history from media such as movies. We can’t expect complete historical accuracy in a movie meant to entertain. The test for success is how many people like the movie, not how historically accurate it is.

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