Putting Ourselves in the (Historical) Picture

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The Ninja Film Review: Putting Ourselves in the (Historical) Picture

Ninja filmmakers from olden times.
Saving Lincoln (2013)

Director: Salvador Litvak

Starring: Tom Amandes, Lea Coco, Penelope Ann Miller

Available on: Amazon Prime, other streaming video sources

There's a moment in Saving Lincoln that stops you cold: it's after the battle of Antietam, the engagement that ended Lee's first invasion of the North. The scene shows Ward Hill Lamon, Lincoln, and Lincoln's youngest son Tad in a room in the White House. (And that really is a room in the White House, I'll explain in a minute.) There's a stereoscope – a 3D viewer – on the table, and the little boy wants to see the pictures. But Lamon snatches it up, shakes his head – not for kids – and hands it to Lincoln. We wonder: what's on there, porn?

'It's a little morbid,' says Lamon. Lincoln takes the instrument, which was cutting-edge tech in 1862.

We see what Lincoln sees: image after image of dead soldiers on the battlefield in three-dimensional agony. Matthew Brady's groundbreaking photography shows the aftermath of the battle. More than 22,000 died in that one day. We're getting it the way they got it: a smack in the face. The overwhelming fact of it all: battle after battle, the numbers are hard to take in: 14,000, 22,000, up to 51,000 in three days at Gettysburg. . . and Lincoln bears the responsibility for it all. He's behind the reality represented on that 3D slide.

A lot of actors have tried Lincoln on for size. A lot of directors have tackled the US Civil War. They've made a lot of noise and won an award or three. But I'd like to suggest, particularly if you're not from the US and not a historian, that if you only want to see one Civil War film, you let it be Saving Lincoln. Here are my reasons.

  1. There isn't an iota of propaganda in this film. The story is carried by the relationship between two friends, Lincoln and Ward Hill Lamon. Lamon gave himself two jobs: to cheer Lincoln up when he was depressed – Lamon was an accomplished banjo player – and to keep Lincoln alive. Lamon accomplished both tasks admirably until a few weeks after the war ended. Watch the movie to see how and why.
  2. The film is historically accurate – or, as accurate as a filmmaker can get it. Okay, I found a few nits to pick. Lincoln didn't have the right hat on in the Baltimore caper. I don't think Tom Amandes has got Lincoln's voice exactly right in timbre and cadence. But heck, they're doing their best, and nothing goes wrong that would cause you to misinterpret events. This is the real deal.
  3. The main reason for seeing this film at least once is the major device it uses, called CineCollage. The background consists of actual photographs from the time blended with props. The actors are standing in the projected spaces recorded by photographers of the past, such as Matthew Brady. That's really what Washington, D.C. looked like in the 1860s. There really were sheep grazing in front of the White House.

Saving Lincoln hammers home two major ideas: the horrendous cost of the war (ultimately more than 600,000 lives), and Lincoln's own struggle with the question of free will versus destiny. The film makes a plausible case for the proposition that Lincoln's personal choice in the matter led him to be sitting in Ford's Theater on the evening of 14 April 1865. Whether you agree or not, you're sure to learn something from this thoughtful re-enactment.

The bottom line: Salvador Litvak is a genius. Saving Lincoln is less a story about a bodyguard's failure to protect than a bold exercise in historical rescue. By animating the frozen images of the past, Litvak is saving Lincoln from the distortions of propaganda and fuzzy public memory. That stereoscope is a lot more powerful than it looks.

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