Sunday, February 17, 2013

When It Matters: “Lincoln” Fudges Truth for Drama’s Sake

Truth. It’s funny how so many of us grow up believing it’s a black and white thing, a mathematical formula which, if we apply it to everything, will make life simple. Well, try to apply it to life and especially relationships and politics and things get messy real quick.  But there’s one place where truth is a definite, and that’s in a person’s actions. If I turn my head, there is no debating whether I have or haven’t.

And if I lived in another era way back in history as a member of the House and I and my colleagues braved persecution to vote against slavery, then nobody can alter that. Not even Stephen Spielberg. He tried, though, in his film Lincoln, a movie where everybody involved was obsessed with the truth about what happened and how it happened and every miniscule detail of the man himself, down to the ticking of his watch. They did a brilliant job. Except for one 15 second scene where they fudged the truth.

Ironically, it was Lincoln who said he thought truth was the best vindication against slander, and here Spielberg was, making a movie that was studiously true to Lincoln the man, slandering four brave men, in the meanest and most cowardly of ways – after they were dead, dismissing their heroic deed in a movie that should have lauded their courage. I’m talking about a scene at the climax that suggests two Connecticut representatives voted against the abolition of slavery.

Current Representative Joe Courtney, who only recently saw the movie, loved every minute of it up until that scene which horrified him for its inaccuracy. He wrote to Stephen Spielberg, asking him to correct it: “…After some digging and a check of the Congressional Record from January 31, 1865, I learned that in fact, Connecticut’s entire Congressional delegation, including four members of the House of Representatives—Augustus Brandegee of New London, James English of New Haven, Henry Deming of Colchester and John Henry Hubbard of Salisbury—all voted to abolish slavery…”

He went on to say that he understood how the suspension of disbelief is part of enjoyment of a movie, “…but placing the State of Connecticut on the wrong side of the historic and divisive fight over slavery is a distortion of easily verifiable facts and an inaccuracy that should be acknowledged, and if possible, corrected before Lincoln is released on DVD.” (Congressman Joe Courtney’s website)

Scriptwriter Tony Kushner poo-poohed Courtney’s objections, rather pretentiously hiding behind a smokescreen of the artiste’s need to create drama. He went so far as to tell op-ed columnist Maureen Dowd of the New York Times that [my words] to make drama out of truth you have manipulate facts sometimes and it was ridiculous to make so much out of such a small detail. He further said it was not as if he had made a villain out of a man who wasn’t really one.

Seriously? He seriously said that? Lincoln is about the abolition of slavery. So wouldn’t it be true to say that in the film’s own frame of reference anybody who resisted the abolition would be a villain, and anybody who worked towards it would be a hero? As for the idea that this ‘minor detail’ – of Connecticut representatives voting in favor when so many voted against – detracted from the drama of the climax and that it was impossible to hold to the truth and still retain that drama, what a load of crap. To put it bluntly. 

It’s just lazy scriptwriting. It took him 6 years to write the script. In all that time Kushner couldn’t find a way around this problem of a tiny, 15 second scene? He further defended himself – without any apology, by the way, to the men whose legacy he erased – by saying he created two fictitious Connecticut Representatives and gave them fictitious names. Well that makes everything okay, then.  

Christopher John Farley of Speakeasy (Wall Street Journal) wrote that the “actual Connecticut representatives at the time braved political attacks and personal hardships to support the 13th Amendment. One of them, Augustus Brandegee of New London, was a fierce abolitionist, and according to an obituary in the Connecticut State Library database ‘He zealously supported the anti-slavery movement when its supporters met contumely and contempt.’ Another, James English of New Haven, considered slavery ‘a monstrous injustice’ and left his sick wife to vote for the 13th Amendment.”

I’m disappointed.  By the deliberate distortion of truth in a movie that has otherwise paid such close attention to detail; by the egotistical absence of remorse shown by Kushner; and by the lack of respect shown for Augustus Brandegee, James English, Henry Deming and John Henry Hubbard who deserve acknowledgment for their courage. Spielberg has said he will give the DVD to any school that asks for it, so the untruth will be disseminated. Until somebody else makes a big-budget movie about the little people who made it all happen. The abolition of slavery, I mean. 

I wonder what Lincoln would say.