Dramatic tension not a valid reason for 'Lincoln' falsity
OPINION:Spielberg had three historical advisers but the film still had historical bloopers – and it’s not alone
I saw Argo with Jerry Rafshoon, who was a top aide to president Jimmy Carter during the Iranian hostage crisis, when six Americans escaped and were given sanctuary for three months by courageous Canadian diplomats.
We were watching a scene where a CIA guy can’t get through to Hamilton Jordan, Carter’s chief of staff, to sign off on plane tickets for the escaping hostages, so he pretends to be calling from the school where Jordan’s kids go.
“Hamilton wasn’t married then and didn’t have any kids,” Jerry whispered, inflaming my pet peeve about film-makers who make up facts in stories about real people to add “drama”. It makes viewers think realism is just another style in art, so that no movie, no matter how realistic it looks, is believable.
The affable and talented Ben Affleck has admitted his film’s climax, with Iranian Revolutionary Guard officers jumping in a jeep, chasing the plane down the runway and shooting at it, was fabricated for excitement.
Authenticity vs entertainment
Hollywood always wants it both ways, of course, but this Oscar season is rife with contenders who bank on the authenticity of their films until it’s challenged, and then fall back on the “Hey, it’s just a movie” defence.
Zero Dark Thirty, “based on first-hand accounts of actual events”, has been faulted for leaving the impression that torture was instrumental in the capture of Osama. It celebrates Jessica Chastain’s loner character, Maya, when it could have more accurately and theatrically highlighted “the Sisterhood”, a team of female CIA analysts in the long effort.
And then there’s the kerfuffle over Lincoln, which had three historical advisers but still managed to make some historical bloopers. Joe Courtney, a Democratic congressman from Connecticut, recently wrote to Steven Spielberg to complain that Lincoln falsely showed two of Connecticut’s House members voting nay against the 13th amendment for the abolition of slavery.
“They were trying to be meticulously accurate even down to recording the ticking of Abraham Lincoln’s actual pocket watch,” Courtney told me. “So why get a climactic scene so off base?”
Courtney is pushing for Spielberg to acknowledge the falsity in the DVD, a quest that takes on more urgency as Spielberg has agreed to provide a DVD to every middle and high school that requests it.
Tony Kushner, the acclaimed playwright who wrote the screenplay, told me he was outraged that Courtney was getting his 15 minutes by complaining about a 15-second bit of film on a project that Kushner worked on for seven years.
The writer rejects the idea that he has defamed Connecticut or the real lawmakers who voted aye. He said that in historical movies, as opposed to history books where you go for “a blow-by-blow account”, it is acceptable to “manipulate a small detail in the service of a greater historical truth. History doesn’t always organise itself according to the rules of drama. It’s ridiculous. It’s like saying that Lincoln didn’t have green socks, he had blue socks.”