February 8, 2013

Yesterday, a hitherto unheralded Connecticut Congressman drew headlines with a press release titled “Before the Oscars…”—an open letter addressed to The Man They Call Spielberg. Lincoln has been praised for its historical accuracy, and won dubious praise from Congressional leaders for its portrayal of the ugly side of parliamentary politics. (See Frank Rich for more on why those Congressmen missed the point.) But one legislator was unimpressed. Democrat Joe Courtney was shocked by the film’s depiction of the vote for the Thirteenth Amendment, which shows the two members of the Connecticut delegation voting against the move to end slavery.

In real life, all four representatives from Connecticut voted Yea—including one representative who left his ailing wife’s bedside to do so. It’s inspiring stuff, but it did not find its way into Tony Kushner’s script, and Courtney is hopping mad, declaring that “The state’s good name, I personally feel, was tarnished a bit.” Them is fighting words, Congressman, and today, Kushner fired back.

In a blistering response, Kushner demonstrated why it’s a bad idea to get into a war of words with a man who makes words for a living. The changes were made knowingly, he said, “to clarify to the audience the historical reality that the Thirteenth Amendment passed by a very narrow margin.” In an attempt to avoid tarnishing anybody, the congressman whose votes were changed were given fake names, Dragnet-style. He continues:

“I hope nobody is shocked to learn that I also made up dialogue and imagined encounters and invented characters.”

Courtney’s public complaining is very likely simply a plea for attention—something congressman love all too well. His demand that the scene be altered for the DVD release will, of course, be ignored. Thankfully, Hollywood doesn’t give a damn what Congress thinks, or every movie would be as patriotically stultifying as The Alamo. But is Courtney right to demand this sort of accuracy?

It’s silly to demand accuracy in film. The IMDB comments section for your average historical drama is populated by whinging history buffs who don’t understand that movies are not supposed to be textbooks. Anything that must be sacrificed for the sake of the story should be sacrificed. When I first heard of Courtney’s ire, I was naturally sympathetic. It seems like such an easy thing to get right, and Lincoln’s grotesque run time turned me against the movie long ago. But Kushner has a way with words, and he talked me into it. If he changed those votes on purpose, then he had a good reason. The historical record is meaningless. Storytelling is king.

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