Under even the best of circumstances, Saving Lincoln would have to inevitably face the scrutiny of potential redundancy. The Great Emancipator has understandably never left the public consciousness, particularly in a troubled contemporary political climate that’s perhaps even more inclined than usual to cast Abraham Lincoln’s role in the passing of the 13th Amendment in a light that’s more mythical than political. Countless novels, biographies, films, and articles have examined various facets of the president’s life, attempting to spin clarity from a myriad of conflicting accounts. In other words, each successive film concerned with Lincoln’s life has to account for the sentiment of “why another one”?
A sentiment that’s greatly exasperated, of course, by the fact that Saving Lincoln’s release is shrewdly timed in what’s most likely a bid to capitalize on Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, a divisive but generally well-liked film that’s yet to fade from the current pop-cultural conversation. Saving Lincoln may drum up some mild curiosity for the audacity of its timing, but this stilted, amateurish production covers similar thematic ground and simply isn’t remotely in the Spielberg film’s league. In fact, Saving Lincoln is no more convincing or enjoyable a biography than last summer’s purposefully ridiculous adolescent fantasia Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.
Saving Lincoln suffers from an even more pronounced than usual case of false retrospection: The filmmakers recreate important historical moments with a sense of inevitability that divorces contemporary audiences from the immediacy of the chaos of life as it naturally unfolds. (This recurring issue with biographies of all sorts imbued Lincoln with an interesting friction, as Spielberg waffled between the notions of Lincoln as a benevolent deity and a cagey politico who cultivated his eccentricity as a fashion of softening his opponents for the kill.) There are no casual moments of people merely living their lives or occupying space in Saving Lincoln. Every scene presents a lesson to be learned and there’s no discernment between public and private political discourses; the characters take turns voicing dull and over-written speeches regardless of the setting or context.
Saving Lincoln is still notable for an odd formal gimmick, reminiscent of Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, that director Salvador Litvak calls “CineCollage,” in which the actors are shot in color in front of green screens that were later replaced in post-production with black-and-white 3D environments rendered from period photographs of the actual corresponding settings. The result is anything but convincing, and it tends to undermine the actors, who need all the help they can get (particularly Lea Coco with his unvaryingly bug-eyed blowharding as Lincoln’s bodyguard and BFF U.S. Marshall Ward Hill Lamon), but at times the artifice achieves a genuinely chilling effect, as the unmistakably contemporary actors appear to be literally haunted by the ghosts of the American Civil War. With a richer script, Litvak could’ve potentially achieved a compelling contemporary resonance of suppressed cultural damage. Ultimately, Saving Lincoln is a bad film that’s somewhat exciting for suggesting, however fleetingly, what a true visionary might do with this expressionistic lo-fi form of world-building.