Next week, Judge Gordon Sullivan attempts to save William Henry Harrison.
The true story of an epic friendship
Readers, I was wrong. In my review of Killing Lincoln I intimated there are three basic ways to tackle well-known historical material. Filmmakers can throw money at the problem, tell us something new about the situation, or give us a narrative of investigation. Apparently, there was one I missed. In my defense, Saving Lincoln largely sticks to telling an unknown story of our nation's sixteenth president, but in so doing it highlights one of the techniques I missed—offering some technical marvel to spice up the presentation of history. It's this road that Saving Lincoln travels down, and though I'm sympathetic to the attempt, it's ultimately too distracting to be interesting drama or history.
Saving Lincoln gives us a new perspective on the doomed president (Tom Amandes, The Long Kiss Goodnight) by telling us the story of his friendship with U.S. Marshal Ward Lamon (Lea Coco, J. Edgar). After a botched assassination attempt in 1861, Lamon elects himself Lincoln's personal bodyguard, and yet he was gone the fateful day in 1865. Saving Lincoln tells the story of their friendship and events that led up to Lamon's absence and the President's assassination.
Saving Lincoln attempts something that should be really interesting. It plays out the drama of the Lamon/Lincoln friendship in front of a green screen. Instead of traditional historical settings or treated interiors, the green screen is replaced with actual period photographs. So Lincoln and the various historical characters talk in front of historically accurate backdrops because, ultimately, they are the actual backdrops from history.
I want to say that it works, that's it's a good idea that really pushes Saving Lincoln from a low-budget cash in on the recent craze for Abraham Lincoln into a worthy cinematic gem. Sadly, that's not the case. I don't think the technique is a bad one—green screen works for flicks like Sin City or Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. However, in the case of Saving Lincoln, it's more distracting than it is immersive. I assume the idea is that by putting Lincoln and Lamon in front of history will give an air of authenticity to their interactions. Instead, the motionless backgrounds (especially motionless people) are distracting. The best uses of green screen so far are subtractive; films like 300 and Sin City use green screen so that they add only those elements to the world that help tell the story visually. In the case of Saving Lincoln, we just have loads of extraneous visual imagery, and more importantly distracting, hokey visual imagery that detracts from the story.
Then, of course, there's the story itself. A compelling drama could probably overcome the dubious visual choices, but Saving Lincoln doesn't have that either. It's easy to gather from Saving Lincoln that Ward Lamon was a bit of a character, one of those larger-than-life types that tend to populate America during its heroic period of Western expansion. In fact he's such a compelling character that it's doubly disappointing that Saving Lincoln doesn't work. It doesn't work because rather than telling an interesting story of Lamon and Lincoln, the movie instead tries to retell history, this time putting Lamon in there as a central character. So, we see a parade of familiar historical moments, but this time we also see Lincoln's friendship with Lamon as well.
At least the flick gets a decent DVD release. The 1.78:1 anamorphic transfer is fine, with a clarity that makes the green-screen process even more obvious. Contrast is good, and black levels stay consistent and free of noise. The 5.1 surround track is dialogue heavy, but the surrounds get a bit of use here and there.
Extras start with a commentary by co-writer/director Salvador Litvak and co-writer Nina Davidovich-Litvak. The pair are obviously fans of Lincoln as a person, and are proud of what they've achieved with the film. It's worth a listen to hear about how some of the creative choices came about. Three short featurettes look at the making of the film (especially its special effects), acting in front of the green screen, and the film's music. A collection of photographs (on which the film is based) are included as well, along with the film's trailer.
Lincoln completists, or those desperate for another take on the iconic sixteenth president might get a kick out Saving Lincoln and be willing to overlook the green screen decision. For everyone else, the more popular Lincoln will likely be enough. With that said, those who do get this disc will get a strong audiovisual presentation and decent extras for their trouble.
Guilty of trying a little too hard to innovate.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Saving Lincoln LLC
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