The story of the Civil War is told from the perspective of the president’s bodyguard in “Saving Lincoln,” director/co-writer Salvador Litvak’s second feature, which uses a retro-looking technique called CineCollage to place scenes within and around photography of the day, most notably that of famed photog Mathew Brady. But the script, while largely historically accurate, is undermined by stilted dialogue, and the pic is laced with ill-fitting parts that wind up literally all over the matte. The result is a film better suited to classrooms than theaters, where it makes a crowdfunding-enabled stop during President’s Day weekend.
While it won’t hurt the pic’s box office to feed off the success of the Oscar-nommed “Lincoln,” auds who wander in expecting a strict narrative will be immediately disabused of the notion. Lincoln (Tom Amandes) and bodyguard Ward Hill Lamon (Lea Coco) are first seen fighting among themselves as cannons roar and smoke rises around them (the scene is revisited later in the film with enough information to piece together that this is the Battle of Fort Stevens in Washington, D.C., toward war’s end). But black-and-white layers of what appear to be still photos amid action in the foreground and background lend Lincoln and Lamon an under-cranked, comical look, giving the scene a vertiginous, theatrical effect.
The story proper doesn’t begin until the pic sets up a bookend sequence, in which Lamon, a Southerner, pleads for his life after the president has been assassinated. His tale — and ubiquitous voiceover narration — chronicles how he met Lincoln, came to be his bodyguard, and wound up trying to protect a man who increasingly felt he had a sacrifice to make.
Along the way, the film touches on the Lincoln-Douglas debates; Lincoln’s supreme abilities as a politician; his difficult choice in changing commanding generals during the war; and the profound toll the death of his son, Willie, and the mounting loss of troops took on his psyche. In fact, the pic paints the 16th president in a Christlike light, foreshadowing this treatment in a bar scene in which Lamon first meets Lincoln and his friends, which is blocked like Caravaggio’s “The Calling of St. Matthew.”
Unfortunately, there are also improbable stops for singing and banjo playing. In one scene, as Lincoln’s carriage passes a cemetery of war dead, he asks Lamon to play him a sad song, and the bodyguard, already established as an able musician, takes out his instrument and proceeds to prove, try as he might otherwise, Steve Martin’s thesis that you can’t play a sad song on the banjo.
It’s at this point that the CineCollage approach is perhaps at its most effective, the riders undulating against a layered countryside. The pic desaturates color from all but the faces and hands of the actors, producing an effect that is cinematically primitive — more
like something from Melies than that rendered by blending intentionally denatured fresh stock into naturally older footage. While the look is striking, it frequently works at cross-purposes with what is thematically a docudrama.
Dramatically, the scenes that play best tamp down the visual conceit, as when Lincoln is comforted by his wife’s aide (Saidah Arrikah Ekulona, somberly eloquent) after the death of his son, and when the first family attends a seance in which the president convincingly reveals the extent of his troubled soul.
The actors sometimes have a difficult time rising above the material, with Amandes (TV’s “Parenthood,” “Everwood”) often reaching the right tone as Lincoln — and delivering a fine Gettysburg Address — but hobbled by his proximity to Daniel Day-Lewis in the role. Penelope Ann Miller is game as Mary Todd Lincoln, especially moving in a scene in which she is bedridden with an injury and recalls her dead son. As Lamon, Coco (“Dorian Blues”) is a good singer, and ably delivers the film’s best intentional laugh.
Tech credits are appropriate, with spots of color used judiciously to foreground players. However, music cues are sometimes inappropriate, and in the screener caught, sound synch fled the film over the final stretch, leaving the chosen portion of Lincoln’s second inaugural address to be assassinated by lip flap. Hopefully, it’s a problem that will be fixed by release date; the complete final credits scroll was pending.