When Steven Spielberg's animated movie "The Adventures of Tintin" premiered last year at the AFI Fest, the filmmaker sent a taped message to the audience, passing along his regrets at not being able to attend. He was in Virginia at the time, busy making a little movie about our nation's 16th president.
Spielberg brought that film to the closing night of this year's AFI Fest, screening "Lincoln" to a capacity crowd that rose to its feet when the 65-year-old director took the stage to introduce it.
"What we wanted to do, more than anything else, is see Lincoln," Spielberg told the audience. "Not to worship him, but to understand him close-up."
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Before the film, Spielberg, screenwriter Tony Kushner, lead Daniel Day-Lewis and most of the movie's sprawling ensemble attended a cocktail reception at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel across the street. The mood was ebullient. The film has received rapturous reviews in advance of its arrival in theaters today, and though most in the room maintained they hadn't read them, they'd clearly been informed of the general consensus.
"I wasn't going to read anything, but my husband kept sending me links, telling me, 'You've got to read this,'" Kushner told me, laughing. "So, yes, I became a little curious. And, yes, I'm very thrilled right now."
Sally Field, who shines as Mary Todd Lincoln, was giddy too, but in a slightly different fashion.
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"I feel sick. Daniel feels sick. And I know Steven feels sick too," Field said. Informed she didn't look at all ill, Field smiled and told me, "You know when something is so important to you that it just tears you up inside? This is that. It means so much to all of us, and it's finally here. People are going to see it tomorrow."
If Spielberg was feeling nervous, he did a good job of hiding it. Cornering him for a few minutes, he spoke of showing "Lincoln" recently to his 15-year-old daughter, Destry.
"She's an equestrian," Spielberg told me. "Jumping. That's her thing. So I didn't think she'd really get into the movie. But she watched it and when it was over, she told the whole story back to me. And it's not like I gave her any kind of primer beforehand. She just got it completely."
So who was prouder, I asked. The father or the filmmaker?
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"Definitely, the father," Spielberg said. "It means something got through all these years." He stopped and smiled. "Though, truth be told, if she was here right now, she'd probably whisper to you that she'd rather I had made the new 'Twilight' movie instead."
Those watching "Lincoln" at Grauman's Chinese Theatre after the reception cheered and applauded twice during the film, appreciating Field's Mary Todd Lincoln going toe-to-toe with Tommy Lee Jones' radical Republican Congressman Thaddeus Stevens and, later, Stevens' brusquely instructing a fellow representative on his duties. Spielberg, Day-Lewis, Field and Jones all received significant applause when their names appeared in the closing credits.
The real revelation of the night was how well the movie's humor played. "Lincoln" focuses on the political maneuvering going on behind the scenes to pass the 13th Amendment and abolish slavery. It's intelligent and wordy, but far from stuffy, which Kushner said, was the goal.
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"Lincoln loved to tell jokes, loved to tell stories," Kushner said. "We knew we wanted to highlight that." Indeed, one of the biggest laughs in the film comes when an exasperated member of Lincoln's Cabinet throws up his hands at the prospect of the president about to unleash another tale.
"That, I think, is the genius of the movie," Jared Harris, who plays Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, told me. "Steven uses the humor to set up the scenes of heavy drama later on."
Harris, like so many great actors in "Lincoln's" cast, appears only in a handful of scenes.
"I pitched him the idea of a 10-part series on Grant for HBO or Showtime," Harris said, smiling. "You know, while we had the beards and all. But I think he has a few other balls in the air."
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