Daniel Day Lewis did a great job portraying Abraham Lincoln in the film “Lincoln.”
He did that by trying to recreate exactly who Lincoln was.
He walked like him, talked like him, and projected the demeanor he thought most closely resembled that of our Civil War president.
Of course, screenwriters have to supply dialogue for historical films for them to work. We have a problem, however, when the dramatization of history pushes aside the truth as we know it for things that screenwriters think should be affirmed. Certainly, writers are allowed to create dialogue and scenarios to guide a story along. We know the Gettysburg address, for example, because it was written down. In order to give background to the story of the address, however, we allow the creation of dialogue to aid in the dramatization – as long as that dialogue comports with the essence of the facts being presented. We assume that in this process there will be a fidelity to truth, in the same way Daniel Day Lewis worked with the truth as he saw it in order to play his role.
In this instance, screenwriter Tony Kushner abused that license, as he’s done before. And Congressman Joe Courtney, of Connecticut’s second district, called him on it, and rightly so.
“… I was on the edge of my seat during the roll call vote on the ratification of the 13th Amendment outlawing slavery. But when two of three members of the Nutmeg State’s House delegation voted to uphold slavery, I could not believe my own eyes and ears,” Courtney announced after viewing the film.
Courtney’s disbelief was justified since, in point of fact, the Congressmen from Connecticut – all four of them –did vote to pass the 13th Amendment. Kushner/Spielberg chose to alter that troublesome fact to add drama to their production. The 13th amendment, the subject of the vote in question, is no mere procedural act. It is the law that eradicated slavery after four terrible years of war and death visited upon our Republic. While fabricating the votes, Kushner also changed the names of the Congressmen, again in the service of theatrical license.
“What does it matter?” asked our last Secretary of State at a recent hearing about our current administration’s actions while four Americans were slaughtered in Benghazi. Kushner said as much in his condescending reply to Representative Courtney’s inquiry. The answer, of course, is that it does matter. It matters a lot. Truth mattered greatly in 1865 just as it does today. Creating a fiction is a giant step away from the honest historical record. In cases where the facts are known, artistic license is not a sufficient reason to change them. It is one thing to provide speech or circumstances when we have to infer what was said or what happened; it is another to change names and votes and the historical record when we know exactly what took place.
“In making changes to the voting sequence, we adhered to time-honored and completely legitimate standards for the creation of historical drama, which is what Lincoln is,” Kushner said in response to Courney’s admonition. Note that Kushner doesn’t acknowledge that he also changed the votes and the people involved. In Kushner’s snarky answer to Representative Courtney, he asserts this right, without apology, to continue to alter history in pursuit of his own agenda. Just as he did in 2005, in his screenplay for the film “Munich.” Then, too, he never defended the liberties he took with the truth by claiming that his script was an honest one.
The Ledger wrote about “Munich” in 2006, pointing out that Tony Kushner, in collaboration with the super-talented Steven Spielberg, used the same heavy-handed alteration of history. In “Munich,” Kushner and Spielberg preached their brand of moral equivalency in a woeful presentation of the story of the slaughter of Israeli Olympic athletes, denigrating Israel’s response to that heinous act. Denying any notion that Israel be allowed to defend itself and act as a sovereign, Kushner — who is on record as saying that ” the Israeli-built security wall should come down, the homeland for the Palestinians should be built up, with a strictly enforced peace, not enforced by the Israel Defense Forces, but by the United Nations” — proceeded to move facts around to suit his views. (Jewish Ledger, Feb. 2006 at www.jewishledger.com).
Kushner abused his license then by changing a matter of record to fit his preconceptions and ideas of morality, as he does now in “Lincoln” to provide drama to the vote on the 13th Amendment, as if four years of war and 600,000 deaths weren’t enough.
The Speilberg/Kushner travesty was highlighted in “Munich” by the way they portrayed Golda Meir in the film’s final scene.
On Sept. 12, 1972, speaking to the Knesset and reacting to the murder of Israel’s athletes, Golda Meir said that “we have no choice but to strike at the terrorist organization wherever we can reach them. That’s our obligation to ourselves and to peace. We shall fulfill that obligation undauntedly.”
Those words, a matter of record, are light years away from the equivocation that Spielberg and Kushner had her say at the end of the film: “…every civilization finds it necessary to negotiate compromises with its own values.” Compounding the tragedy of this misrepresentation is that this statement has been routinely attributed to her since that film was produced. A search through the serious work written about Meir since her death turns up no similar citation. Another by-product of Kushner’s invention.
It would have been easy for Congressman Courtney to just let the altering of the historical record slide. Why pick a fight with Hollywood? But he didn’t, and for that he deserves our appreciation and respect. His objection once again focuses us on the compromising of truth that our society too often treats as a relative value. There are times, particularly in a movie theater, that we have to remind ourselves that it is not.