Past is Prologue

Clint Schemmer writes about history, heritage preservation and the American Civil War.  On Facebook: Past is Prologue  On Twitter: @prologuepast  ContactEmail Clint or call 540/374-5424.

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‘Lincoln’: An E-ticket ride into America’s past

Richmond’s 1,300-seat Byrd Theatre, a National Historic Landmark, opened in 1922. (BYRD THEATRE FOUNDATION)

Somehow, I wound up sitting in the Byrd Theatre in Richmond’s Carytown neighborhood for the Virginia premiere of Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” last Thursday.

It was a great privilege to be there on a night that so many people had worked so long and hard to make happen.

The Byrd is a wonderful place on any occasion, but especially on that evening–described here by my colleague, Free Lance-Star columnist Rob Hedelt.

The joint was jumping, as they say.

Chris Dodd, chairman of the Motion Picture Association of America, munched fresh hot popcorn five seats down the row. On the mighty Wurlitzer, the house organist was setting the mood with a rousing medley of Civil War tunes. A five-man fife-and-drum unit marched down the aisle and showed how military musicians got the troops’ blood pumping. Let’s call them the warm-up act for Gov. Bob McDonnell and the other state officials who welcomed the Hollywood epic to Virginia’s capital, where it was filmed.

But that was just the immediate scene inside the Byrd.

Daniel Day-Lewis, in a shot  from director Steven Spielberg’s epic drama, stars as President Abraham Lincoln. (DAVID JAMES/DREAMWORKS AND TWENTY CENTURY FOX)

The real magic happened when the house lights dimmed, the curtain rose and the projector cast its beam onto the screen in front of us.

When “Lincoln” began.

Prepared for disappointment, I was carried away after the film’s first five minutes, transported to another time and place. And stayed happily, deep in the 19th century, for another two hours and 20 minutes.

A proper review will have to wait a few more days (heeding Virginia Film Office ground rules), but suffice it to say that this incredible movie is the closest any of us will ever get to the real Abraham Lincoln, to understanding this complicated human being. Unless you want to spend a lot of time with his own words, or reading the best biographies.

And if Daniel Day-Lewis isn’t nominated for the besrt-actor Oscar, I’ll be a monkey’s uncle.

The film is no battle-fest, but captures the desperate insanity and high stakes of the American Civil War.

Lincoln-haters will pan it, regardless, but the movie doesn’t put a halo on the 16th president’s head. He is seen as many things, including coarse, profane, angry, conniving, and willing to dispense patronage to achieve his policy goals.

In other words, believable. And fitting the historical record.

Don’t take my word for it.

Here’s what historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, whose book “Team of Rivals” forms the foundation for Tony Kushner’s screenplay, told PBS host Charlie Rose:

“I went to the filming in Richmond and they had created a White House set. And they took me, they opened the door. And here was the White House … I was blown away. I’ve imagined it for 10 years in my life and suddenly the wallpaper is as it was. The maps on the wall are the ones that were there. The books he was reading are first-edition books. The carpet had been recreated. It’s just amazing … And to see this character, here is my Lincoln, he’s back again.”

More on all this as soon as I’ve gotten some shut-eye. (My apologies; just put Sunday’s paper to bed a little while ago.)

In the meantime, I commend this superb C’-Ville opus on how the movie happened to get filmed in Virginia. It was no accident.