Tony Kushner Stumbles Again

I guess Lincoln screenwriter Tony Kushner just can’t help himself. Having stumbled all over the place when he attempted to give his take on Reconstruction, thus showing his ignorance of current scholarship, Kushner, who has been chided elsewhere for his initial failure to give adequate recognition to the work of Michael Vorenberg on the Thirteenth Amendment, now decides that he wants to wag his finger at Connecticut congressman Joe Courtney because Courtney pointed out that, contrary to how the film has it, none of Connecticut’s four congressmen voted against the Thirteenth Amendment. Indeed, all four voted for it, including Democrat James English, whose vote came as something of a surprise to many in attendance that eventful day.

Kushner’s letter appears in the pages of the Wall Street Journal, thus ensuring that discussion of Courtney’s complaint would last beyond the usual 24-hour news cycle. After reading it, I venture that his best hope for getting out of this newest mess is that today’s blizzard will also bury discussion of his mistakes. Here’s his reasoning:

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.  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.

Oh, come on. This is a case where reality was much better than fiction, which is not the first time this observation’s been made about this movie. Are you telling me that Kushner decided that his audience was too dumb to figure out what was going on, and lacked the skill to compose a screenplay that could be accurate as well as compelling? If anything, English’s decision to support the amendment was truly dramatic, and everyone at the time knew as much. Instead, elsewhere we were treated to an admission that the film changed names of various congressmen who opposed the amendment in order to spare their descendants any mortification … as if someone can’t simply find the roll call on their own. I’m still trying to reconcile that explanation with inventing opposition to the amendment among Connecticut’s congressmen … why doesn’t Kushner care about people’s feelings in Connecticut, and why conceal English’s brave act?

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

Inventing dialogue is something one would expect in a movie, so long as the dialogue seems consistent with what we know happened. And yes, we can understand that Kushner felt the need to invent characters. That does not serve as a very persuasive case about why one should tamper freely (and needlessly) with the historical record in the interests of drama. Heck, if that’s the case, why not have Lee decide to surrender at Appomattox instead of releasing some horrible weapon of war that would exterminate the Yankees? Wouldn’t that be more dramatic? Heck, you could increase DVD/Blu-Ray sales by offering alternative endings, right?

This sounds more like a case for Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter than for the movie under discussion.

Kushner then attempts to play historian again:

The Thirteenth Amendment passed by a two-vote margin in the House in January 1865 because President Lincoln decided to push it through, using persuasion and patronage to switch the votes of lame-duck Democrats, all the while fending off a serious offer to negotiate peace from the South.

Try again, Tony. I’ve pointed out that you took great liberties with the arrival of the Confederate commissioners to inject a sense of drama that is significantly at odds with what happened.

Kushner then offers his own history lesson about Connecticut politics during the Civil War, but that’s neither here nor there, as I’ve already highlighted Courtney’s incomplete contextualization of the vote. That said, at least this time Kushner names the scholar on whose work he relies for this information.

There have been three types of criticism of Lincoln as an exercise in history. There are those who have claimed that the story is incomplete as a story of the destruction of slavery and the roles played by various groups and people in that process. I don’t attach much weight to those criticisms, because the movie’s focus is on one of those stories, not all of them. The second type of  criticism concerns picking at small inaccuracies that are of little consequence to the story. It seemed to me that in a larger sense, while the decision to portray Connecticut’s vote differently was totally unnecessary (and a bit off-putting), the impact on the narrative arch of the movie was minimal (although I’d argue that it did nothing to increase the drama of the moment).  And then there are larger issues about the liberties Tony Kushner took with the telling of the story that seem both unnecessary and have a significant distorting impact on the story he claims he wants to tell. Even that would die, however, if Kushner did not take it upon himself to offer explanations that raise far more questions than they answer.

h/t to Dimitri Rotov


6 thoughts on “Tony Kushner Stumbles Again

  1. M.D. Blough February 8, 2013 / 12:15 pm

    Well said, Brooks.

  2. John Randolph February 8, 2013 / 3:41 pm

    The money quote from Kushner,

    “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.”

    I would say that “not precisely this way” is not very precise, indeed, and creates a loophole large enough to fly a 787 through (assuming they’re not grounded).

    My question, in response to Kushner’s rule, would be why would you not prefer to go with the actual way it happened if by doing so you did not undermine in any significant way the artisitic integrity of the historical drama?

  3. Bummer February 8, 2013 / 4:24 pm

    Two white film gods from L.A. aren’t going to care really whether their critiqued or not. Kushner is a screen writer, that’s all, Kearn’s book was the outline, nothing more, it gave the film a level of legitimacy that Spielberg needed to market Day-Lewis as Lincoln, the rest was fluff and if they got some of the history correct, the public was lucky. Spielberg’s best bet is to muzzle Kushner and let the movie proceed on its own merit. The “old guy” spent half his life around these folk’s and if Steven spent 10 years researching the subject, you can bet he knows the truth, but sometimes the truth doesn’t sell.


  4. Brad February 8, 2013 / 5:41 pm

    It never ceases to amaze that Hollywood types feel the need to change things when the truth is much more interesting.

  5. rcocean February 8, 2013 / 8:13 pm

    I’m still scratching my head over why they think “13th Amendment” sorry “Lincoln” is an interesting movie. Hello? Slavery was dead in Jan 1865. If the House hadn’t passed it in January 1865, it would’ve passed it in March 1865. There was NO serious confederate peace offer. In any case, the stumbling block to peace was the same one it’d always been. Lincoln refused to accept any peace without Union, Davis refused to accept any peace *with Union. Davis, in fact, was in the process of giving slaves freedom in exchange for joining the Rebel army.

    So all the political rig-a-moral to get it passed in the movie just bored me.

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