‘Saving’ the best Lincoln for last

It’s a good time to be Abraham Lincoln, Hollywood star.

In recent months alone, you’ve had Robert Redford’s “The Conspirator,” “Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter,” and, of course, Steven Spielberg’s Oscar-contender “Lincoln” hitting the silver screen. A National Geographic Channel adaptation of Bill O’Reilly’s bestselling “Killing Lincoln” also arrives this month.

Now, there’s “Saving Lincoln,” which debuted in 20 cities on Feb. 15, including an exclusive engagement at Laemmle Music Hall in Beverly Hills. It enjoyed a robust premiere at the Alex Theater in Glendale on Wednesday night.

“I couldn’t be more thrilled,” said Nina Davidovich Litvak, who co-wrote the movie with her husband, Salvador Litvak. “The film was really in doubt for the longest time.”

Part of that doubt seems tied to a certain Lincoln project by one world-famous Jewish director behind such international hits as “E.T.” and  “Schindler’s List.”

“Obviously, there’s a plethora of Lincoln projects right now, but there had not been a Lincoln movie for a long time,” Litvak said of when he began his Lincoln journey 12 years ago.

“We had no way of knowing what their approach would be,” Litvak said of Spielberg’s film. “Thankfully, they just did the last four months of his life and focused on the passing the 13th amendment through Congress.”

“Saving Lincoln” stars Tom Amandes as the titular prez, Lea Coco as Lincoln confidant Ward Hill Lamon, Penelope Ann Miller as Mary Todd Lincoln, and a cast that includes Robert Craighead as Secretary of War Edward Stanton and “The Office” star Creed Bratton as Sen. Charles Sumnor.

What makes Litvak’s take so interesting, the director noted, was that this was “Lincoln [and] the whole Civil War from the perspective of his closest friends,” including Lamon, “the Rodney Dangerfield of history” (not included in Spielberg’s “Lincoln”).

“Saving Lincoln” spans the time from Lincoln’s political rise just before he was elected president through the end of the Civil War. It covers missed tactical opportunities in the war and personal setbacks, as the Lincolns lost children, one to typhoid, another to the battlefield.

A macro version of events compared to Spielberg's micro, Litvak, in under a million dollars, succeeds in delivering an expansive overview of Lincoln's blood-drenched presidency while honing in on such personal attributes as Lincoln's gift for gab and his sense of humor. A particularly fascinating moment comes post-victory, as a crowd boos the president's attempts to lead his audience in a round of “Dixie,” which Lincoln aims to “return to the national songbook.”

Unlike Spielberg, Litvak focuses on the myriad assassination attempts on Lincoln’s life, from an early botched mission by John Wilkes Booth to the yellow fever-tainted rags sent to the White House from Barbados.

What attracted producer Reuben Lim to the Litvaks’ project was that this movie was “about the man and not just the politician,” he said. There was also Litvak’s desire to film without sets, on a green screen, and incorporate archival photography into the movie’s backdrops.

As his first film, “Half-Life,” demonstrated, Lim comes from a special effects background, so he went about keeping the movie’s “cine-collage” technique under budget in a unique way, turning to special effects program students at San Francisco’s Academy of Art University to work on “Saving Lincoln” in a mutual exchange benefiting both the filmmakers and the budding CG animation professionals. The resulting stylized film looks like a hybrid of Spielberg’s movie and Ken Burns’ “Civil War” documentary.

The Feb. 13 premier's dessert reception became a de facto reunion for the cast of “Saving Lincoln,” who filmed their parts a year and a half ago. Amandes compared making the movie to an animated feature, since so much happened in post-production. He likened the performances to theater.

“If you notice, a lot of the scenes were done in one take,” said Amandes, who found his period-piece role a hearty challenge. “I love playing with the language.”

Adding a layer of meaning for him: the actor hails from Richmond in Lincoln’s native Illinois.

Miller told the Journal how her role transcended her typical “ingenue roles.” Researching the part, she learned just how important Mary was in indoctrinating Lincoln to abolitionism, and how determined she was to marry a U.S. president even before she met Abraham.

The ultimately irony about “Saving Lincoln” is that the filmmakers, on a shoestring $700,000 budget, did not shy away from depicting the entire Civil War, including battle scenes, whereas Spielberg’s $65-million film focused on just a few months before the war’s end and eschewed battleground recreations for Congressional process.

“We’re the Lincoln of Lincoln films,” Davidovich Litvak said. “He was humble and poor, he had no advantage. We had no money, limited resources. But you don’t have to have money or make billions to make a good film.”

“Saving Lincoln” runs Feb. 15 – 21 at Laemmle Music Hall and will be available digitally via iTunes and on DVD via Amazon.