Artistic License, History, and Lincoln’s Green Socks

Of course, some historical fabrications are harmless.

Of course, some historical fabrications are harmless.

Several well-placed critics are taking “Lincoln” screenwriter Tony Kushner to task for what they believe are unethical misrepresentations of fact in the much-praised, and supposedly scrupulously accurate film. He, on the other hand, is annoyed. Kushner counters that unlike in history books where a historian gives a well-researched “a blow-by-blow account,” it is reasonable and ethical for a screenwriter to “manipulate a small detail in the service of a greater historical truth. History doesn’t always organize 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.”

I’m going to spare Kushner lawyerly word-parsing and not hold him to “a greater historical truth,” though I suspect that in his hands (he is a skilled political propagandist as well as writer), we would not be pleased with what that license would bring. A politically sympatico film director named Oliver Stone, for example, thought it served a greater historical truth to present completely fictional evidence that Lyndon Johnson was complicit in John F. Kennedy’s assassination, even though Stone’s vehicle, “JFK,” was marketed as a veritable documentary on the “truth” of the Kennedy assassination. Let’s just say that Kushner feels that in a work of entertainment and drama, strictly accurate representation of all historical facts is impossible and unreasonable to expect or require.

I agree. But there is a big, big difference between the ethics of showing Lincoln wearing the wrong color socks, and representing a highly dubious story as fact to denigrate the reputation of a probable hero, as James Cameron did in “Titanic” when he showed First Officer William Murdoch taking a bribe to let a passenger on a lifeboat ( fantasy), shooting a passenger (pure speculation), and committing suicide (denied by a fellow officer under oath at the inquest). The first, as Kushner said, is completely reasonable, though I’d love to know how Kushner thinks the color of Lincoln’s socks could serve “a greater historical truth.” This is the characteristic hypocrisy of film-makers that rankles. “Lincoln’s” makers have crowed about their efforts to be historically accurate to the smallest detail, even the sound made by Lincoln’s watch; Cameron boasted that he made sure the pattern on the Titanic’s china was accurate. When screenwriters and directors assert that historical detail is a high priority, slipping in substantive distortions of the facts or manipulation of events will be misconstrued by audiences as literal truth. Then we hear the “It’s a movie!’ excuse. OK, then if it’s a movie, don’t market it as a historically accurate film.

The specific complaint about Lincoln involves the movie’s depiction of two Connecticut Congressmen voting “Nay” against the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery. Joe Courtney, a Democratic Representative from Connecticut, recently wrote to Steven Spielberg to argue that his predecessors were defamed. There were dramatically legitimate reasons for the fiction, at least in Kushner’s eyes. Courtney has a point, though: those Congressmen were real people, and their original “Aye” votes for the Amendment came at significant political risk. Is it fair for the majority of Americans to believe they were pro-slavery? Is it fair to their memories, their legacies, their reputations, and their families? Kushner’s answer, and I think most artists’ answer, is “so what?” Fairness isn’t their job, they will argue. Making a compelling movie is. From Shakespeare’s histories to “Lincoln,” audiences should be on notice that anything they see and hear cannot and should not be taken as literal fact, because representing literal fact isn’t the medium’s goal.

Agreed. Nevertheless, there needs to be an ethical  doctrine of excessive harm—to public knowledge, history, and real people. Destroying a courageous public servant’s reputation isn’t like using the wrong color socks. I refuse to believe that Kushner couldn’t have accomplished the same dramatic objectives without making those Connecticut lawmakers look like Klan members. He just didn’t care…they were just socks to him. William Murdoch’s reputation was just socks to Cameron, and LBJ’s good name was just socks to Oliver Stone. It’s true: artists have a right to twist facts and history however they choose for what they believe are “greater historical truths” or even for more butts in the seats, more cheers at the credits or more dollars in their pockets. It still is wrong for them to do so recklessly, needlessly and with arrogant disregard for the consequences of their work.

People are not socks.

There will always be disagreements over what is reckless and needless. The British are still angry that American prisoners of war were given central roles in “The Great Escape,” when the real escape was an all British and Canadian operation. I’d say this alteration was justified: without Steve McQueen and James Garner to sell the film to American audiences, the story might never have been told at all. Critics of “Mississippi Burning” complained  bitterly about how two fictional FBI agents played by Gene Hackman and Willam Dafoe were made the heroes of an iconic civil rights story that had many heroes and was far more complex, but the film never claimed to be accurate in all its specifics: it was obviously historical fiction. My father, a veteran of the battle, was infuriated by the movie “The Battle of the Bulge,” which made it look as if, he said, Henry Fonda won the conflict single-handed. But it was just a lousy movie, that’s all.

When art and history mix, history is likely to be the loser. It’s up to the artists to make sure the result justifies what is lost, and to not abandon all fairness, honesty, compassion and common sense in the process.


Spark and Source: New York Times (Maureen Dowd)

Graphic: SMU Daily Campus

26 thoughts on “Artistic License, History, and Lincoln’s Green Socks

  1. Anyone associated with a movie should mocked for using any term even resembling “historically accurate” just as anyone associated with the tobacco industry should be mocked if they suggest their product is ‘healthy’.

    How many schoolchildren had ‘JFK’ as their history lesson on the Kennedy assassination? How many will watch this as their history lesson about Lincoln and the Civil War? I remember Kevin Costner defending JFK on a talk show where it boiled down to him stating that if this ISN’T the truth, it is the truth as it should be and truth as we should make it. I assume that is similar to the “greater historical truth” that Kushner is talking about.

  2. Americans were involved in the building of the tunnels just not the escape. And why should the British be upset when it was mostly a Canadian operation?

  3. The reasons Kushner gave for the changes – the audience would be better able to keep track of what was going on if Congress voted by state, and they needed the early votes to be “nay” in order to raise dramatic tension – both seem like reasonable concerns to me. Apparently you don’t

    You say “those Congressmen were real people.” But they weren’t. There were real Congressmen from CT who voted “Aye,” but because those real Congressmen didn’t fit his dramatic purpose, Kushner made up fictional Congressmen with fictional names, instead of using the real people. That seems like a reasonable way of dealing with the situation.

    • I’m not going to second guess the artist’s dramatic sense and choices—they are his to make, and if they work, they’re valid and defensible. I think Kushner’s statement comparing such a change to the color of Lincoln’s sock is ominous, and shows an inadequate appreciation of what he did. 1) He changed the event 2) he removed the names and deeds of two men who played a positive role in the passage of the 13th Amendment 3) represented them with fictional characters who did not play such a role, and 4) showed the state of Connecticut as opposing the 13th Amendment when it did not. That’s all business as usual for historical dramas, but it is still significant and substantive, and Kushner’s minimizing the import of it shows that he doesn’t have sufficient reverence for truth.

      If you are going to take such liberties—and I’m not saying one cannot or should not—they don’t tell us that the film payed scrupulous attention to details, like the ticking of Lincoln’s watch. And just call it what it is: historical fiction. “1776” does worse historical damage than “Lincoln” (talk about messing with the voting!) but because it’s a musical, nobody assumes that it is accurate.

      • I agree, the socks comment is ridiculous – so over-the-top and obviously ridiculous that I wish I could see it in the original, full context, rather than just what Dowd (a reporter I don’t entirely trust) reports. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if Kushner had said that comment in regard to some of the more general complaints the film has gotten, not in regard to the issue of who voted for the amendment.

        Not that there’s any way to know. Which I think is ridiculous, in the internet age – people should routinely be posting the full text of interviews and linking to it, not just posting snippets. It would help to keep reporters honest. (I know, grump, grump.)

        And yeah, they shouldn’t have made such a big deal about the historical accuracy when they were taking some (arguably reasonable) dramatic liberties.

        • I agree with you, and appreciate your correcting me and tracking down full statements when relevant.
          But I’ve read and listened to a lot of Kushner, and this sure sounds like his bull-in-a-china shop, utilitarian approach to art generally. He’s a brilliant but arrogant guy. They go together, I hear.

      • Wait! Are you trying to insinuate that ‘1776’ was not completely accurate in every minute historical detail? Oh, the disillusion of it all!

        I’ve not (yet) seen the movie, but I gather you are saying they depicted the House voting state by state rather than alphabetically by member. If he needed some members from an early state to vote no, surely there were more plausible ones (such as Delaware, or perhaps even Arkansas — I think they might’ve had a delegation seated again by then). I must admit that, when I first heard of this controversy, my eyebrows were raised at the idea of New England congressmen voting against this amendment. I’d always thought that was a hotbed of abolitionist sentiment.

        Here is the good news about this film / controversy, though. I hadn’t known that the 13th amendment had a difficult time in its passage through Congress. I guess I’d simply assumed that the Republicans had plenty of votes to pass it (and the other two Civil War amendments).

        Of course, what hadn’t dawned on me that the Congress that sat in January, 1865 was actually elected mostly in 1862 (not a particularly great year for Republicans) and that the Republicans actually just had a plurality in the House. Doing some research on Wikipedia, I found a number of fascinating tidbits on elections and political parties in the 1850s and early 1860s. For example, I never knew that Congressional voting for the 1854 election started in August, 1854 and extended until November, 1855.

        Still, if I were from Connecticut I’d be annoyed at my congressmen being slandered by this film (and I bet they got their socks wrong too).

        • If he needed some members from an early state to vote no, surely there were more plausible ones (such as Delaware, or perhaps even Arkansas — I think they might’ve had a delegation seated again by then).

          They were looking for an equivalent of something that actually happened, which is two votes from Illinois (who happened to be among the earliest voters, apparently), a state that you’d expect Lincoln to easily swing, going against the 13th amendment.

          For the dramatic purpose Kushner intended, it had to be a state that 1) modern viewers would expect to vote for the amendment, so it could feel like a surprising loss, and 2) a state that comes really early in the alphabet. I think item 1) pretty means it had to be a New England state.

  4. Strangely enough, what peeves me about historically inaccurate movies isn’t so much that they’re, well, inaccurate, but that I suspect they reduce our ability to appreciate genuine “truth-is-stranger-than-fiction” or “ahead-of-its-time” moments; I’ve seen people who genuinely thought that the Adams’ real-life antislavery views were something the HBO miniseries made up.

    • 1.) WoW! Where have YOU been?
      2.) As usual, quality, not quantity with J.H. Great point. When I saw “The Conspirator,” and the movie showed Aitken getting the writ to stop Mary Surratt’s execution at the last moment, the day she was scheduled to die, I assumed this was Redford and his screenwriter compressing time for dramatic effect. But no, that’s exactly how it happened.

  5. Screenwriters taking liberties with history has long been a sore point with me! As you say, Jack, when you inject fictional characters into the weave of history (such as Captain Hornblower, for example) it needs to be made clear from the onset that this is historical fiction. The best of that genre blends a single characters into actual history as a audience focal point, using that character’s outlook and impressions as a window into reality. When you alter actual history to suit the character- that’s where the problems arise. In the final analysis, historical reality (in depth) usually blows away any fantasy from a writer’s imagination. It requires only knowledge and perseverence on a writer’s part in accurately presenting it to the reader or viewer. That sort of dedication (particularly in Hollywood!) is at a great premium. Which is a shame, because in true history lie the greatest stories of all.

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