Thursday, February 14, 2013

Sal Litvak’s 'Saving Lincoln': Innovative and entertaining

When you want to make a movie about a big topic, but have a small budget, how do you do it?

You get innovative. 

If you do it right, it works. 

“Saving Lincoln” works.  Director Salvador Litvak got innovative.  

Litvak and his wife, Nina Davidovich, have long wanted to create a film about Abraham Lincoln. They faced a couple of obstacles, though. Another filmmaker, a little better known, was also working on a movie about the 16th president—and Steven Spielberg had just a few more financial resources to work with than the Litvaks. 

As Litvak and Davidovich did their research for the film, they were drawn into photographs from the period. Knowing that shooting on location was probably not financially feasible given their budget, Litvak wondered if he couldn’t use the photos as the setting —and that’s exactly what he did. 

The movie’s scenes were shot against a green screen, and Litvak used a process he calls CineCollage to make the scenes come to life against real 19th century backdrops. It works, and I suspect we’ll see more of this process over time.

“Saving Lincoln” tells a Lincoln story that has not yet been told on the big screen—the tale of the relationship between Lincoln and his colleague, a fellow attorney and business partner from the Illinois Eighth Judicial Circuit, Ward Hill Lamon. 

In the days when the two practiced together in the Danville, Ill. area, they bonded in the courts by day and the taverns by night, where Lincoln’s storytelling and Lamon’s banjo picking helped to fill the long dark evenings and mesmerize the prairie folk. 

In actor Tom Amandes, we see a Lincoln, young at first, worry-worn toward his final days, and actor consistent in his depiction of a man who could cackle from the depths of his being at a good joke, including his own, and carry the burdens of a nation upon his shoulders. We see a father’s relationship with his children and his mourning at the loss of one during the White House years. We see the power of the president’s relationship with his complex wife, Mary Todd Lincoln. 

Because this film is not as much about Lincoln’s relationship with his wife as it is with Lamon, in Penelope Ann Miller’s portrayal of Mrs. Lincoln, we see a mother’s love for her children, a wife’s worries about her husband. One of the strongest bits of writing in the play is not in the script itself, but the way Mrs. Lincoln’s anguish is portrayed from a distance. 

I don’t remember seeing Lea Coco, who plays Lamon, on screen before, but he’s got a new fan.

Every once in a while you met someone whose eyes help to capture the essence of their character, who pierce you, saying, “I am this character and all he represents.” Lea Coco does that with Ward Hill Lamon. Many times in the film what he doesn’t say is as powerful as what he does. It takes a knack as a film writer to create those scenes and a gift as an actor to pull it off. 

In addition to these three key characters, I can’t fail to mention Bruce Davison’s portrayal of William H. Seward. Though I’ve always enjoyed his work and loved his role as Nick Anderson in the 2009 film, “Christmas Angel,” Davison was Seward come to life in this film. I like the actor even more now than I did before. 

And, as for Saidah Arrika Ekulona as Mrs. Lincoln’s dressmaker Elizabeth (Lizzie) Keckley—she had me so spellbound that I forgot she wasn’t really Lizzie. 

Over the past few years, I’ve been as anxious to see this film completed and showing as I was to see that other Lincoln movie—and in different ways I liked each as much as the other. 

Anyone comparing Litvak’s film with Spielberg’s does both artists an injustice. The films aren’t the same, as either director will attest—yet Litvak and his wife and Spielberg and his writer have some things in common in creating these film, and the films themselves share a commonality. 

Like Lincoln screenwriter Tony Kushner’s, the Litvaks’ writing is engaging, enlightening, and entertaining.

The filmmakers/writers share a thirst for knowledge about Abraham Lincoln, and they share a desire to create that thirst in others. 

In this respect, both films are spot on. Just as “Lincoln” does, “Saving Lincoln” leaves its viewers with questions about Lincoln and his legacy. 

If those of us who study Lincoln or share his story in our work or artistic endeavors can light a spark of interest about Lincoln in others, we’ve been successful. 

Because it does this, “Saving Lincoln” gets my accolades. 

See the film: I had the joy of seeing the inaugural public screening of “Saving Lincoln” on Feb. 11. The viewing was sponsored by the Abraham Lincoln Association and shown at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum. 

Don’t miss your chance to see the film this weekend (Feb. 15-16) and next week at select theatres throughout the country. If it doesn’t come to your city, watch for the release of the film soon on iTunes and DVD.

Blogger’s note: I also had the privilege from early on to serve as an historical advisor and to help to connect Nina Davidovich and Sal Litvak with others who could answer their questions about Lincoln and Lamon. I loved their excitement. 

I expected them to deliver a project worth paying attention to. 

They did. 

© Ann Tracy Mueller 2013

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