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Film’s impact on Virginia not limited to box office

Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell addresses the crowd inside the Byrd Theatre before the RIchmond première of ‘Lincoln’ on Thursday night. The film, shot entirely in Virginia in late 2011, opens nationwide on Nov. 16. (DEAN HOFFMEYER/RICHMOND TIMES-DISPATCH)




RICHMOND—Minutes before the première of “Lincoln” here Thursday night, Michael Kennedy spoke emotionally about his part in the movie.

Before Gov. Bob McDonnell and other state officials took time to congratulate one another on the commendable task of getting Steven Spielberg to make the movie in Virginia, the 69-year-old Kennedy recalled a surprising moment in the filming.

It happened in a climactic scene where Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives were, with President Abraham Lincoln’s backing, pushing to pass the 13th Amendment to permanently abolish slavery.

Kennedy, a veteran actor who lives in Irvington, was playing a congressman from Davenport, Iowa, and was called on to utter a key bit of dialogue.

He did, but when the cameras stopped, Kennedy realized there were tears running down his face.

“Steven came over and asked me if I was OK,” said Kennedy. “I explained I had realized there was a connection to my character.”

The actor said that he had known his great-grandfather had owned a newspaper in Davenport, Iowa. But he hadn’t been aware, until the part, that his great-granddad had traveled to Washington to see the 13th Amendment passed.

“Here I was re-enacting this scene where my great-grandfather had actually been up in the gallery to see the amazing moment in American history,” said Kennedy. “It affected me more deeply than I realized it would.”

He said Spielberg—who was the most organized and focused director he’s ever worked with—comforted him. And then noted he’d heard about similar sorts of connections from dozens of others in the production.

Extras in the movie ‘Lincoln’ prepare for a scene in front of the Virginia State Capitol, altered to replicate the White House, in November 2011. (STEVE HELBER/ASSOCIATED PRESS)

I imagine many viewers will find their own connection to the movie, based on the Doris Kearns Goodwin book “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln,” when it opens here and elsewhere around the country in wide release next weekend.

(A Virginia Film Office official noted the film was making its première Thursday simultaneously in “the trifecta” of Richmond, Petersburg and Hollywood.)

Be clear: The movie is not a tale of military battles in the Civil War, though it does open with a brief but vicious battle scene.

From then on, it’s all about the legislative fight to pass the amendment that Lincoln knew in his bones was the right thing to do.

Daniel Day-Lewis (center) depicts President Lincoln conferring with advisers inside the White House, in a scene from the film “Lincoln.” (DAVID JAMES/DREAMWORKS AND TWENTIETH CENTURY FOX)

Virginia tourism officials, who arranged the gala première at the Byrd Theatre on Thursday night, asked that full reviews not be done at this time.

But it’s not violating that request to say simply that the film is a spell-binding work of drama and history. Its somewhat static and talky nature is actually a strength because of the quality of the spoken words.

Daniel Day-Lewis’ portrayal of Lincoln is nothing short of amazing, making the president a fully realized and fascinating figure who wielded words the way Lee and Grant arrayed troops.

He brings Lincoln to life, warts and all, in a way no one has ever done with Lincoln or, for that matter, many other historical figures.

Daniel Day-Lewis portrays Abraham Lincoln in director Steven Spielberg’s film, which opened in limited release on Friday, Nov. 9. (DAVID JAMES/DREAMWORKERS AND TWENTIETH CENTURY FOX)

McDonnell joined other state officials saying they were thrilled that viewers who see the major motion picture will realize it was made in Virginia and will want to visit our state, to walk in the path Lincoln and now Spielberg have trod.

The governor had some good lines of his own about the days when he and his family turned over the Governor’s Mansion to the production to double as the White House in the same way the Virginia capital doubled in the film for the one in Washington.

Imagine his emotions, he quipped, coming home from a long day of work to see “Abraham Lincoln at my table, eating my food, with my wife.”

Daniel Day-Lewis, as THE 16th U.S. president in a scene from the drama “Lincoln,” looks across a Petersburg battlefield in the aftermath of a terrible siege. (DAVID JAMES/DREAMWORKS AND TWENTIETH CENTURY FOX)

But he and other state officials were serious in noting that the filming of “Lincoln” in Richmond and Petersburg had direct expenditures of $32.4 million in the state and a total economic impact of $64.1 million.

They ticked off a ream of financial impacts: The film company hired 1,199 Virginia-based actors and extras and 380 crew members, required 23,580 room nights in hotels and apartments, and benefited businesses ranging from grocery stores to restaurants to even antique stores.

McDonnell noted that it took years of work from a range of state officials to bring the film here, adding that visits Lincoln actually made to Richmond and Petersburg were a key part of Spielberg’s decision to make the movie in our state in 2011.

The governor said he hopes the positive experience Spielberg had shooting “Lincoln” in Virginia will bring him and other filmmakers here for future movies.


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Rob Hedelt: 540/374-5415