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