Sunday, February 10, 2013

Salvador Litvak's green-screened SAVING LINCOLN plumbs Abe's bond to Hill Lamon

"The better part of one's life consists of his friendships," is the quote by Abraham Lincoln that opens the new film, SAVING LINCOLN, a surprise of sorts from Salvador Litvak, last seen dishing up the crass but pretty funny Jewish family comedy When Do We Eat?  As he was not invited to see the current Spielberg/Kushner take on our 16th President (at this point in time, he'll wait for the Blu-ray to appear), TrustMovies has to say that he was surprised, charmed, moved and held fast by Litvak's and his co-writer Nina Davidovich's odd mixture of a movie. (The above quote is apropos because the film deals with the rela-tionship of Lincoln to Ward Hill Lamon (rhymes with Damon, of Damon & Pythias, as a song of the time makes clear), who was Abe's best friend and valued protector during his Presidency.)

What sets Saving Lincoln rather spectacularly apart, however, is the manner in which it has been filmed. Using all its actors working against a single green-screen stage, Mr. Litvak (shown at right) and his special-effects people have somehow "composited" the result into a kind of 3D environment of vintage black-and-white photographs from our Civil War era. The result is both artful and beautiful, with the actors appearing in a kind of tamped-down color, and always in quite the right proportion, against these photos. The movie is like watching a storybook unfolding, full of important facts and events and people and ideas, put forward as a kind of historical pageant. Yet it is never stolid or boring. Thanks to some excellent acting from all concerned, the events shown spring to life.

How much better in all ways (except, I would image, its upcoming box-office take), is this film to something like the also-green-screened 300 -- in which abs, attitude and uber-violence are front and center, while history is fucked over and appallingly boring backdrops are paraded incessantly before us. The backdrops here, these wonderful photographs, are used so well and imaginatively that the movie, I think, may find a permanent place in memory.

Something else I appreciated, though others may not, is the fact that Mr. Lincoln (a terrific performance from Tom Amandesabove, right) is not deified. He is shown to be very bright, caring and politically astute but also given to whims (attending a seance at the behest of his wife-- well-played by Penelope Ann Miller). And while there is a definite homo-erotic tension between him and his friend Hill, nothing faintly homosexual should disturb any highly-conservative Lincoln lovers.

As I say, the acting here is often splendid, never more so than in scenes like the one between Lincoln and Mrs. Keckly, his wife's maid (the fine and moving Saidah Arrika Ekulona) sparked by the death of the Lincolns' son and addressing the man's faith, or lack of it, in god. Another good, if brief performance comes from Bruce Davison, above, as William H. Seward. Also wrenching is an amputation performed in a military hospital (below) using only the tools on hand in a more medically primitive time.

A note, too, should be made regarding the excellent choice of music in the film -- from the banjo and singing that early unite Lincoln and Hill Lamon to the rendition of Dixie that the President insists on having sung after the Civil War has been won by the North, no doubt as a kind of move toward proper reconstruction.

Despite its sense of pageantry, the movie does not slight (in fact, it pushes this front and center) the huge and ghastly number of lives of young Americans lost to the Civil War against the need to win -- and soon -- at all costs. The film also suggests, without making too much of it, that Lincoln may well have been aware than his time was at hand, now that he had accomplished what was necessary for the country.

The movie's weakest link -- oddly enough, given the quotation that begins it -- is the relationship between Lincoln and Lamon. Despite a good performance from Lea Coco (above, right, from Dorian Blues) in the latter's role, we never get much more than that aforementioned music as the bond, together with Lamon forever warning the Prez not to go out unaccompanied. I realize that what we do get -- the war, the necessary politics, the loss of a child -- is important, but a little more of what truly bonded these two men, even if imaginatively created out of whole cloth, would have been appropriate and appreciated.

Saving Lincoln, a sad and humane pageant via Pictures from the Fringe and running 101 minutes, plays one night on Lincoln's Birthday, this Tuesday, February 12, in Washington DC, and then hits New York City (at the Quad Cinema) and Los Angeles (at Laemmle's Music Hall) this Friday, February 15, with further openings in cities around the rest of the country to follow. Click here to see all currently scheduled playdates, cities and theaters.


Anonymous said...

I really don't think the use of the f word was necessary in your review.

James van Maanen said...

You're right, Anonymous. It was not necessary. But that is part of why I occasionally bandy the f word about on my blog in one or another of its configurations. This is part of my attempt to defuse that word, along with some others, of their almost mystical power in our culture. It's just a word, after all, Anon, and it seemed to fit nicely into that particular sentence.

And speaking of words: "Anonymous" is a bit overused, don't you think? Why not identify yourself -- it's so freeing!