‘Saving Lincoln’

Lincoln aims rifle as bodyguard watchesYou wonder what the “Lincoln” effect will do for Salvador Litvak’s “Saving Lincoln.”

I found Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” to be magisterial but some critics and, I suspect, the Academy ultimately will not agree. But whatever the case, that film may spur interest in another new Lincoln film, an experimental work steeped in history and using actual photographs from the era as sets.

“Saving Lincoln” purports to tell of the nearly forgotten friendship between the Civil War president and Ward Hill Lamon, his former law partner in Illinois who, handy with a gun, came to Washington to act as his self-appointed bodyguard.

But this is the foreground action. Behind every shot are genuine black-and-white photographs blown up to produce well appointed rooms, historical buildings and grim battlefields before which the action plays out.

It works better than it might sound. These “sets” while not looking real in the sense of, say, the magnificent sets in “Lincoln,” ground the foreground action in a kind of historical reality.

Abe Lincoln on Civil War battlefieldOf course, the producers could have filmed the entire movie in black-and-white so things match better. But this Brechtian device does, as that practitioner of Epic Theatre would have applauded, focus your attention on the political arguments and strategies under discussion rather than provoke an emotional identification with these figures.

The film may oversell the importance of Lamon in Lincoln’s life. The film has him in nearly every meeting of importance to the Union and the Lincoln presidency.

Yet the fact remains that from the day Lincoln assumed office until the night of his actual assassination, he was in continual danger of death by violence. (Lamon was on a presidential mission the night of the Ford Theater shooting but did warn Lincoln not to go out — especially to the theater.) So in this fact alone was Lamon, a physically imposing man, important.

Lea Coco, who plays Lamon, is not as imposing as photos of the actual man demonstrate. But he displays a tenacious aspect that ably substitutes.

Tom Amandes plays Lincoln and let’s not bother to compare this performance to the no doubt Oscar-winning one delivered by Daniel Day-Lewis. Suffice it to say, Amandes’ Lincoln is made of solid stuff — humorous, sagacious and prone to deflect angry rhetoric with whimsy and soft words.

Penelope Ann Miller’s Mary Todd Lincoln is much flightier than the other one on display currently. Veteran Bruce Davison is solid but not in evidence nearly often enough as Secretary of State William Seward.

Lamon is seen here, in a script by the director and his wife, Nina Davidovich Litvak, as Lincoln’s sounding board more often than his cabinet members. So the focus here is narrow and probably ahistorical.

Nonetheless, “Saving Lincoln” suggests a way modestly budgeted films can approach historical epochs and figures in a provocative and arresting manner.

Opens: February 15, 2013 (Pictures From the Fringe)
Production company: Pictures From the Fringe
Cast: Tom Amandes, Lea Coco, Penelope Ann Miller, Bruce Davison, Creed Bratton, Josh Stamberg, Saidah Arrika Ekulona
Director: Salvador Litvak
Screenwriters: Salvador Litvak, Nina Davidovich Litvak
Producer: Reuben Lim, Salvador Litvak
Executive producer: Horatio C. Kemeny
Director of photography: Alexandre Naufel
Production designers: Rachel Myers, Gabor Norman
Music: Mark Adler
Costume designer: Carin Jacobs
Editor: Josh Noyes
No rating, 101 minutes