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Virginia Secretary of Commerce and Trade Jim Cheng and Gov. Bob McDonnell outside the Byrd Theatre
Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of Steven Spielberg's Lincoln, at an invitation-only screening last night at the beautiful and historic Byrd Theatre. In the most unlikely of triangles, the film, 100 percent of which was filmed in Virginia, much of it in Richmond and Petersburg, premiered in those two cities and Hollywood on the same night. It opens today in major markets and on Nov. 16 in our area.
At the press conference before the screening, Gov. Bob McDonnell, whose work in getting Spielberg and company to film in Virginia was lauded by several speakers, lamented that he had to put up with the Union Army camping in his front yard. When he walked inside the Executive Mansion after work one evening, he added, there was "Abraham Lincoln eating my food — with my wife!" But he noted it was all worth it for the economic benefits — $32 million in direct spending and $64 million in economic impact were pulled in by having this major release filmed in Virginia.
The audience included McDonnell; his wife, Maureen; former U.S. Sen. Chris Dodd, now the president of the Motion Picture Association of America; Petersburg Mayor Brian Moore; former Gov. Doug Wilder; several state delegates and senators; and Rita McClenney, the newly announced CEO of Virginia Tourism Corporation (and former director of the Virginia Film Office). They were treated to patriotic tunes from Bob Gulledge on the mighty Wurlitzer and a fife and drum corps playing as they marched down the aisles before the main event: speeches. Several of the speakers could have learned from Lincoln's concise flag-raising speech depicted in the movie to chuckles.
Finally it was time for the film to roll. I wish I could tell you that I loved every minute of it. Daniel Day-Lewis does an extraordinary job inhabiting Lincoln's skin, no doubt, and there is fine acting and some wonderful vignettes. Overall, the humor in the film — of which there is more than you might expect — is more successful than the dramatic scenes, which tended toward the overwrought and clunky. I've read Doris Kearns Goodwin's massive Team of Rivals, which screenwriter Tony Kushner partially based his screenplay on, and I thought the film was more adept at handling the intimate scenes than the grand ones.
I admit to being captivated by trying to figure out where every scene was shot and spotting locals, from actor Scott Wichmann to Virginia first lady Maureen McDonnell to Wyatt Gunther, an extra I met just before the screening. I was better at noting Maymont's hills and vales during a carriage scene or the November Theatre during — what else — a theater scene than I was at picking out individuals. Better luck next time.
I'm afraid Richmond gets short shrift in the film — no Lincoln walking through the streets with newly freed slaves swarming around — though the city's architecture is crucial in many shots. The interior and exterior of the Virginia Capitol are big stars, though they've been transformed to be the White House and the House chamber in the U.S. Capitol. It's a sumptuously made movie — with impressive costumes and furnishings and facial hair, and it tells an important story that too many of us are unfamiliar with. Look for the allusion to Virginia's motto, "Sic Semper Tyrannis" (thus always to tyrants), in the opening scene. I'm a sucker for foreshadowing! (John Wilkes Booth shouted this from the stage at Ford's Theatre after shooting Lincoln.)
If you want to get involved in the Lincoln -related hubbub before the film opens in Richmond on Nov. 16, but you didn't get an invitation to the private screenings for special guests and cast and crew, you'll have a couple of opportunities. On Nov. 13, the Richmond Times-Dispatch is holding a public square on the film from 7 to 8:30 p.m. at its 300 E. Franklin St. offices, with an extended trailer, T-D reporter Katherine Calos, and NPS historian Mike Gorman, who was a consultant on the film. Meanwhile, the Virginia Tourism Corporation and the Virginia State Capitol are hosting a Walk in the Footsteps of LINCOLN event on Nov. 15, at 10 a.m., at the Portico steps of the Capitol, just above the Visitor Entrance. Hear about a new trail that will highlight the places in Richmond and beyond where the movie was shot, as well as the favorite spots of the cast and crew — where Sally Field had her birthday dinner, where Daniel Day-Lewis ate his mac and cheese. Facial hair and top hats are encouraged. I would add that we should remember the ladies — so BYO hoop skirt.