OK. So watched Salvador Litvak’s SAVING LINCOLN, which is now for rent on iTunes. I recommend this ONLY if you have relatively little familiarity with Mr. Lincoln’s legacy because of nitpick’s like me it was … well … difficult. Hey, nothing against Mr. Litvak, I think it was really a noble experiment: A film about the friendship between Mr. Lincoln and his bodyguard Ward Hill Lamon, using actual Civil War photos as the set backdrops. Sounds like an interesting idea. But. The best laid plans of Mice and Men…
Here’s the problem: Nothing gelled. Tom Amandes turns in a sturdy performance as the 16th President. Sure, he’s no Daniel Day-Lewis (who is?) and his portrayal echoes loudly that of Sam Waterston in Gore Vidal’s LINCOLN. Which is fine with me, since that was a really solid performance. And, I was particularly happy to see them go back to a younger Lincoln while still a lawyer in Illinois (And Lamon became his law partner, something not really addressed in the film) as we see, even if only briefly, the knee-slapping, popular storyteller in action.
When something *doesn’t* work, it’s not actually Amadnes’ fault, who gives his all (unlike Billy Campbell’s performance in KILLING LINCOLN which felt quite vacant): It is either the featherweight script, an error in direction, or both. The same is true of veteran actress Penelope Ann Miller (of whom I am a long-time fan) as Mary. When she actually IS on screen, she is terrific as Mary.
But…she is rarely on screen.
Which, I guess, is fine because this is a film about Lincoln and his dear friend Ward Hill Lamon.
And…therein lies my issue.
I am certain that Lea Coco is a fine actor, a lovely fella, he’s certainly easy on the eyes, and I’ve no doubt that he threw himself into this role 100%.
He. Just. Isn’t. Lamon.
This is why I think the film is best seen through the eyes of someone NOT particularly possessive about the Lincoln-verse. Lamon was a rough-and-tumble-I’ll-Kick-Your-Face-In kind of guy who CHUGGED liquor and, while a flamboyant Virginian in dress and docile enough to sing songs with his banjo, was burly enough to defy anyone comment on it.
Coco is certainly aggressive in the role. In fact, he spends nearly all of his time being, well, so supremely angry. Like. Always. In fact, he’s either grimacing or yelling at someone:
Or he’s picking away at his banjo to soothe the president’s nerves. No in-between. It’s 0-to-60 in three seconds with this character.
There are moments I definitely appreciated— especially the bit with Lamon sleeping outside of the president’s door, which totally happened:
But I just couldn’t get over the fact that Coco was, well, so damn PRETTY, that the real Lamon would have drop kicked his ass in a heart beat.
I’ve already mentioned the script being slightly on the asinine side, but perhaps my biggest issue is simply the casting (aside from Lincoln and Mary) that leaves SAVING LINCOLN somewhat dull. John Huston once famously said that “casting is 80 percent of the job” and it’s ever so true. While Mr. and Mrs. Lincoln are obvious pros, everyone else seems relegated to oratorical flourishes, grand gestures, and melodramatic pauses that belong in a high school theater production.
Not sure why Secretary Treasurer Salmon P. Chase— who was a diminutive balding widower, is cast as, not only young and handsome, but TALL and handsome. (In fact.. EVERYONE seems to be either taller than Lincoln or at least his height. HELLO?! We are talking 1865 here! Not everyone was fucking six foot four! They STILL aren’t!) Or why the wonderfully colorful Secretary Seward (played by the excellent actor Bruce Davison whom you may remember from THE CRUCIBLE) gets little-to-no screen time, and when he does it’s static and over-the-shoulder. (That’s Seward with the white hair, bottom right; and Chase, far right…suffering from too much Rogaine. Stanton, to the left, is finely bearded and Monty Blair is … well … oh, poor Monty.)
McClellan is, as appropriate, a smarmy, jerk-faced little twerp (yup, that’s Salmon Chase behind him. Tall dark and handsome Salmon Chase…wtf?!):
And General Ellsworth, that dashing Zoave who died so valiantly, is quite yummily cast. He has, like, one line and just has to look pretty and dashing and awesome. Which he totally nails:
Too bad most all of them have adopted unforgivably bad southern accents. (And…why do northerner’s speak with southern accents? So confused.) Most noticeable of all, is Lamon’s accent, since he provides the film’s narration. And rest assured, its ev’ry’thin’ ya thank a suth’un acc-aynt shuld saawnd laahk.
His role is highly overplayed, as are many dramatic moments that really ought to be underplayed. When Mary wails at the death of Willie, it is raw and emotional enough to stand on its own. Yet Litvak feels the need to dub in over her performance the president’s sobbing and the menial line “My son is actually dead”. It detracts from Penelope Ann Miller’s searing emotion, and comes across forced, which is hardly the way Amandes intended it to sound. Nor did the line need to be said at all.
Litvak does not allow the scenes to really breathe. Therefore, the production feels, at times, almost like dinner theater…especially when the ensemble bursts into song. Lincoln adored music, yes, this is very true, and Lamon would often oblige him with a tune. I love that. But. On film? You have to be selective and not make it feel like a Rogers and Hammerstein musical which, I’m sorry, there are one or two moments in SAVING LINCOLN when you get that uncomfortable ‘I feel a song coming on’ twitch.
Like remember when this never happened? Little Tad Lincoln, who had a speech impediment, leading a crowd of thousands in a rendition of “Dixie”? (The band did play Dixie at Lincoln’s request. But his family was not with him.)
How about no.
Or what about the time Lincoln totally sang gospel songs with a group of freed slaves? OMG WTF NO. (That tale of a freed slave kneeling in front of Lincoln, and Lincoln admonishing him to kneel to no one is true. But…he never came so close to the black community as to *party* with them, no matter how much we’d love to believe otherwise.)
And… I’m pretty damn sure that criminals did NOT wear beanies in the mid 19th century. But if they did, well done, Lamon, for scaring the shit out of President Lincoln in another scene that never/and could never/have happened. (I’m ALL for historical fiction … but … C’MON.)
And then … the set design. The idea of superimposing the actors into actual Civil War photography is very interesting.
Unfortunately … it doesn’t always work.
When it does, it’s quite pretty. Like this very pretty scene in Lincoln’s office :
Or this suh-weeeet re-creation of Lincoln’s famous visit to McClellan on the battlefield of Antietam:
But when it doesn’t work, well, it doesn’t work at all. And… it doesn’t work often. You can’t shake the feeling of it being more akin to a Photoshop 1.0 cut-and-past than anything else:
At the very least, SAVING LINCOLN is an earnest production, that was made out of genuine love and respect for our greatest president. And for that, I thank Mr. Litvak. If even ONE person becomes interested in Lincoln and /or his politics because of it, than it was worth the watch.
I just can’t help but doubt that the uninitiated will have the patience to labor through the wonky dialogue and discordant production.
*2 out of 5 Stars*