10 Feb 2013

Spielberg’s “Lincoln” and the Historical Record

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Tony Kushner

Congressman Joe Courtney, who represents Connecticut’s Second District (essentially the whole eastern part of the state), was, I think, understandably offended when he found that Stephen Spielberg’s “Lincoln” (2012) depicts two out of three representatives from Connecticut (presumably including his own predecessor, Augustus Brandegee), voting against the Thirteenth Amendment– you know the one abolishing Slavery.

Courtney indignantly wrote Mr. Spielberg a letter of protest, noting that the Congressional Record shows that all four Connecticut congressmen, not three, (hardly surprisingly) voted for the 13th Amendment.

People from Connecticut, at the time, were generally Abolitionists. Of Mr. Brandegee, Bonesman, DKE, Yale Class of 1849, who represented Mr. Courtney’s part of Connecticut, a eulogist wrote at the time of his death in 1904:

He stood for high ideals through all his public life. At a time when the Abolitionist met scorn and contumely, he laboured zealously to free the slave. A member of Congress through the war, he became the trusted friend of Lincoln, and rendered signal service for the cause of the Union. And then and ever after he put aside official station for the simple life.

He was a knightly man – hypocrisy, shame, expedients, pretensions – the whole brood of lies and deceits – were his enemies. He fought them all his days and when the end came, passed over God’s threshold with escutcheon unstained and with plume untarnished.

Tony Kushner
, the screenwriter, said Rep. Courtney was out of line.

Kushner responded in a letter of his own, which acknowledged that the scene in question is not consistent with the historical record. However, he proceeded to defend the changes as part of the filmmaking process.

Kushner admitted the following in his letter: “We changed two of the delegation’s votes, and we made up new names for the men casting those votes, so as not to ascribe any actions to actual persons who didn’t perform them. In the movie, the voting is also organized by state, which is not the practice in the House.”

The screenwriter further explained the reasoning behind the modifications, writing, “These alterations were made to clarify to the audience the historical reality that the Thirteenth Amendment passed by a very narrow margin that wasn’t determined until the end of the vote.”

Kushner distinguishes “historical drama” from actual history.

“Here’s my rule: Ask yourself, ‘Did this thing happen?’ If the answer is yes, then it’s historical. Then ask, ‘Did this thing happen precisely this way?’ If the answer is yes, then it’s history; if the answer is no, not precisely this way, then it’s historical drama,” he wrote.

The screenwriter’s note contained a bit of sarcasm.

“I’m sorry if anyone in Connecticut felt insulted by these 15 seconds of the movie, although issuing a Congressional press release startlingly headlined ‘Before The Oscars…’ seems a rather flamboyant way to make that known. I’m deeply heartened that the vast majority of moviegoers seem to have understood that this is a dramatic film and not an attack on their home state.”

The Thirteenth Amendment was passed by the Senate on April 8, 1864, by a vote of 38 to 6; by the House of Representatives on January 31, 1865, by a vote of 119 to 56. Passage was by “a narrow margin” in the sense that amending the US Constitution requires a 2/3’s vote of both houses.

But, you know how it is, “the film-making process” requires the artful manipulation of the audience’s emotions and powerful appeals to their prejudices. Screenwriters and directors need to be free to take certain liberties with mere historical facts in order to get their message across.

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