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Moments before the curtains lifted for Thursday’s premiere of Lincoln, Steven Spielberg received a standing ovation from the audience as he stood in front of the silver screen to present his film for the AFI Fest’s closing night.
“He’s a myth — powerful and maybe a bit slightly out of focus,” said Spielberg of his film’s subject matter, Abraham Lincoln, during his opening presentation at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre in Hollywood.
The Oscar-winning director’s historical biopic looks intimately into the personal and political life of the 16th president of the U.S., focusing on the last four crucial months of his presidency. The screenplay, written by Tony Kushner, is based in part by Doris Kearns Goodwin’s biography Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln.
“What we wanted to do with our film, more than anything else, we wanted to try and see Lincoln,” Spielberg explained in his speech. “We wanted to try and invite him down from his marble pedestal to see past his many after lives and not to worship him but to understand him close up, as much as possible — to meet him as the person and politician he actually was.”
To capture Lincoln’s emotional complexity and political agenda, Daniel Day-Lewis spent a year preparing for the role in which he captures the president’s appearance and speech patterns, reportedly never stepping out of character on the set.
Sally Field, who plays the president’s wife Mary Todd Lincoln, also underwent a physical transformation, gaining 25 pounds for the role.
“It was horrible. It was not fun, at all,” Field told The Hollywood Reporter about her physical change. “I also did it in a very disciplined way because I felt it needed to be discipline or I would have just felt like Sally being willy-nilly. So I did it with a nutritionist.”
The Academy Award-winning actress added, “Ultimately I could have just eaten cheeseburgers and it would have been the same thing. But I didn’t, so I never had a fun meal. I can’t tell you how much I looked forward to lettuce, eventually.”
Field described her experience working with Day-Lewis during the film as “wonderful” and “magnificent.”
Just as Day-Lewis was a leader as Lincoln, Spielberg was a master as director.
Walton Goggins, who plays Clay Hawkins, a Democratic congressman who is approached by the Lincoln administration to vote in favor of the 13th Amendment, described the filmmaker as being the best when conveying a strong sense of emotion.
“I think that’s what he does best in a very, very big way, and he doesn’t stay away from sentiment,” said Goggins. “I think it’s because he’s in love with the subject matter that this movie is based on that he takes you on that journey, and you’re with a master.”
He told THR his experience of being on set with Spielberg was “like the best date I’ve ever had.”
The film reveals Lincoln’s personal side and does so successfully, as Joseph Gordon-Levitt tells THR: “Steven made some courageous choices to take a figure that is so beloved and such a hero in our culture and not be afraid to show him as a human being that has shortcomings, make compromises and mistakes.”
Gordon-Levitt plays Robert Lincoln, the president’s oldest son who enlists in the Army despite his parents’ protests. If given the opportunity to talk to the real Abe, the Looper actor said, “I would want to ask him how far he would push if he could.”
He explained: “Lincoln had to make compromises, and it shows in this movie — there are the pro-slavery people criticizing Abraham Lincoln, but then there’s also the people who are more progressive than he who are criticizing him as well. I would ask him, ‘Would you do them if you could, or do you actually think those things shouldn’t be?’ I have a feeling he would know that [he’d say] ‘Yes, if I could, I would. But I can’t, and we have to take baby steps.’”
AFI Fest 2012 was held Nov. 1-8 in Los Angeles.
Lincoln opens in limited theaters on Nov. 9, and expands wide on Nov. 16.
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