As an onscreen character, Abe Lincoln has been a pretty busy guy over the last year or so. First there was the silly but mildly amusing Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter, and then, of course, Spielberg’s epic Lincoln. Then there have also been Abe’s peculiar, spectral appearances in those Ford commercials “rebooting” the Lincoln brand.
And now comes the indie Saving Lincoln, which plays February 16 through 18 at FilmBar in Phoenix. Directed by Salvador Litvak, who wrote the script with his wife, Nina Davidovitch Litvak, it’s an account of Lincoln’s long and intimate friendship with Ward Hill Lamon, an ebullient Virginian who was first a law crony of Abe’s, but later served as U.S. Marshal for the District of Columbia, and Lincoln’s unofficial but frequent bodyguard and companion.
Students of low-budget filmmaking are likely to be fascinated by Saving Lincoln’s ingenious solution to the problem of making an historical epic for (reportedly) under a million dollars. The actors were shot in front of a green-screen, with the backgrounds added later, many of them derived from historical photographs. The results aren’t realistic, of course, but on their own terms they’re seamlessly done, and they give the movie a dreamlike, theatrical visual stylization—almost the quality of a “magic lantern” show—that is, at least for me, quite effective.
The dialogue and performances have the blunt, declamatory earnestness of a school play, but this, intentional or not, has a certain effectiveness as well. It’s compelling in the way a vigorously-performed school play can sometimes be. There are a couple of name actors in the cast—Penelope Ann Miller as Mary Todd Lincoln and Bruce Davison as Seward—but most of the cast was unknown to me. TV journeyman Tom Amandes plays Lincoln, while a young fellow with the striking name of Lea Coco plays Lamon.
Neither star managed, for me, to be deeply convincing as a 19th-Century man (at one point Lamon refers to John Wilkes Booth as a “blackguard,” carefully pronouncing it “black guard”). But, again, this doesn’t really matter—both make likable, attractive pageant figures. The movie also contains some fine music, and Amandes gets to deliver the Gettysburg Address in its entirety, which means we get to reflect on what a masterly specimen of the speechwriter’s art it is.
There are also a number of strange episodes, as when Lincoln, at the request of his wife, attends a séance, and reacts to a supposed message from beyond—meant to be comforting and encouraging—with withering anger. I couldn’t say how accurate this stuff is—the veracity of Lamon’s sometimes self-serving memoirs are a matter of debate among Lincoln scholars, and in any case I don’t know how closely the Litvaks followed these sources. But it’s memorable, anyway.