Sports fans are familiar with that common, irrational howl: the too-invested fan who screams towards the field or at the screen, veins bulging in their forehead prompted by too much lubrication. How could you call that play? Why are you substituting the righthander from the bullpen? Do you not understand anything about clock management? While there remain hecklers in the movie theaters, they show comparative restraint, and we should count our blessings they can control themselves in front of the silver screen. How on Earth could you put the camera there, Tom Hooper? Ben Affleck, what are you thinking? Why am I watching Bradley Cooper out there when clearly Mark Wahlberg should be filling that roster spot?
But for the five of you planning on buying tickets to “Saving Lincoln” this weekend, perhaps you’ll be forgiven in your vocal distaste of the “techniques” of director Salvador Litvak. Not to be confused with a certain Oscar-nominated film still playing in theaters, nor a recent television event featuring none other than the original “Rocketeer,” this no-budget entry in the story of President Lincoln and his makeshift Secret Service is a real oddity. “Saving Lincoln” has to be the result of favors called in, some sort of curious deal to fill theater screens with the most amateurish, you’ve-gotta-be-kidding-me visuals one has ever seen.
Producers of “Saving Lincoln” have advertised the film as being the result of “cutting-edge 3D technology” that essentially amounts to the completely green-screened background of each scene comprised of still or barely animated photographs. With no color-correcting, and absolutely no effort given to proper shading, the actors stand out like a last-minute freshman art school project. Members of the cast lurch towards inanimate, non-existent props in a manner not unlike how your parents first approached an interactive game on the Wii — does this cavalryman know that the musket he aims to grab is actually a teapot? To that sports fan, it would be like the coach calling in the pitcher with a 27.00 ERA for a Game 7, lining the quarterback up on the defensive line, or letting the guy at the end of the bench guard Kobe Bryant on the final play. Maybe all those combined.
The underwhelming effects obscure a fascinating chapter in history: Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” is less a biopic than it is a story about the government’s approach to the end of slavery, while “Killing Lincoln” appears to focus specifically on the actions and politics of John Wilkes Booth in relation to the sixteenth president. “Saving Lincoln” actually takes a look at the executive branch at a time when the thought of assassinating the President was merely a crackpot threat to all but Lincoln’s inner circle. The idea of one of one of American history’s most beloved leaders scoffing at threats towards his life as his closest acquaintances prepare for tragedy has, at worst, a blackly humorous tinge, and at best, a sadly ironic fear towards an outcome that is inevitable.
Alas, “Saving Lincoln” is not cast with a troupe of actors who can’t elevate the nuance-free material (every other line is a foreshadow), but with a number of hams who can’t even sell the laughter following one of Lincoln’s inside jokes. As Honest Abe, Tom Amandes is a couple of notches below Robert Barron, the actor who wore the stovepipe hat in “Bill And Ted’s Excellent Adventure.” His forced smile suggests Sam Waterson frozen in carbonite, and his clogged delivery contrasts with the Lincoln of this film, who enters a room and commands immediate respect (like the other Lincoln adaptations, the President’s aura is never meant to be less than awe-inspiring). As his best friend, confidante and personal bodyguard, Lea Coco has the presence of “Ally McBeal”-era Gil Bellows, which is to say he would be passable in a television spinoff of this very rich historical idea. Other actors with somewhat bigger names fill out the supporting cast, all deployed to questionable effect: at numerous times, Bruce Davison’s William H. Seward is at a loss as to what his line-of-sight needs to be, while Creed Bratton (yes, THE Creed Bratton) is allowed to bulge his eyes out as if he were also some sort of special effect artificially interacting with the cast onscreen. And as wife Mary Todd, Penelope Ann Miller seems to think they’re recording the dress rehearsal, and can be seen dropping and re-assuming character within a single shot.
At its best, the shallow field effect creates the intimacy of an audaciously-terrible one-act play, with characters nearly tipping their hat whenever they drop a line about Lincoln’s assassination and future legacy. At its worst, the film is a panoply of ersatz camera placement and terrible scene blocking, actors having no clue how to interact with their surroundings as they rifle through dialogue that stands as a series of historical checkpoints rather than a cohesive story. Perhaps the most tasteful decision is to avoid showing the actual assassination, fading to a protracted, blank white screen. Gazing upon that sight, we witness the first half-competent shot in the entire film. [F]