Tag Archives: Tony Kushner

BREAKING NEWS: Hollywood And Broadway Declare War On The Presidency, Elections, Democracy, Decency And Civility. NOW What?

“I’m just going to say one thing. Fuck Trump! It’s no longer ‘Down with Trump.’ It’s ‘fuck Trump!’”

—Actor Robert De Niro on live TV at the Tonys last night.

Then he pumped both fists in the air, as a large contingent of the crowd of Broadway glitterati at Radio City Music Hall stood and gave him a standing ovation, endorsing the gutter insult.

I believe such un-American conduct creates an ethical obligation on the part of fair and reasonable American to demonstrate their contempt and opposition, in as strong and decisive a manner possible.

What that means is beyond my ability to suggest right now. I don’t like to write when I am angry, and I am angry. But this must not stand.

Yesterday, commenting on the unethical Tony Awards scheduling  of De Niro, who has used other appearances to make vulgar, hateful, ad hominem attacks on the President, I wrote in part,

“If you invite Robert De Niro, you are deliberately announcing that your event is going to be politically divisive and include an attack, probably uncivil, on the President—and while he will be engaged in crucial international negotiations. The President has nothing to do with the Tonys, nor does politics—the main contenders for top musicals are “SpongeBob” and “Mean Girls,” for heaven’s sakes—nor does De Niro, who is just one more movie star being used by Broadway to attract a larger TV audience.”

Naturally, CBS allowed this to go forward, because it was in search of ratings for the perpetually viewer-starved awards show. The network either knew or should have known that this meant that it would be broadcasting some kind of ugly episode. The network was accused of  conspiring with Janet Jackson to flash her breast during the supposedly family-friendly Super Bowl half-time show—you know, back in those halcyon days when games didn’t include NFL players symbolically calling the US. racist as a prelude?—and swore that it had no idea anything inappropriate was going to happen. Well, it can’t make that claim now about De Niro. De Niro’s outburst is like the breast-bearing if Jackson had been flashing at every public appearance. CBS knew he was going to insult the President. It wanted him to insult the President. Continue reading

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Reconsidering “Lincoln,” Lincoln…And Trump

I’ve been reading a lot about Abraham Lincoln of late. A book by William Hanchett called “The Lincoln Murder Conspiracies” reminded me that while President Jackson is the closest historical match for the populist, outsider aspect of Donald Trump’s rise, the startlingly close match for the antipathy and hatred Trump has faced from the moment of his election eerily traces the experience of Abraham Lincoln.

Like Trump a minority President, Abe won only 39.8% of the popular vote but was still comfortably elected by the Electoral College. As with Trump, his opposition refused to give him a chance to govern or unify the nation, although in his case, the Democrats divided the country literally, seceding from the union before Lincoln took the oath of office. Today’s Democrats are without that option (thanks to Lincoln!), but are doing everything else in their power to undermine the elected leader. (And California, the most Democratic state, is saber-rattling about seceding.) Also like Trump, Lincoln did not concede that his lack of a popular vote majority in any way robbed him of a mandate to govern.

From the moment the election results were known, many Democrats proclaimed the election of Lincoln itself to be an act of aggression, a “declaration of war.” Many in Lincoln’s own party—even his own Attorney General—accused him, with some justification, of engaging unconstitutional measures. The Governor of New York evoked the Revolutionary War generation, saying that they would not stand for such incursions on their rights. Constitutional expert George Ticknor Curtis of Massachusetts predicted that the Lincoln Presidency would “be an end to this experiment in self-government.”

Meanwhile, pundits and critics heaped personal abuse on Lincoln, calling him grotesque, a barbarian, ” gorilla.” Diarist George Templeton Strong, whose words are so often quoted by Ken Burns in his documentary about the Civil War, called him a “yahoo.” It was said that fashionable New Yorkers would be ashamed to be seen in the presence of someone as boorish and uncultured as Lincoln;  it was rumored that he rejected handkerchiefs and “blew his nose through his thumb and forefingers, frontier-style.” As late as 1864, a New York editor wrote,

“[The President] is an uneducated boor. He  is brutal in all his habits and in all his ways. He is filthy. He is obscene. He is vicious.”

Somehow, despite this cruel barrage of ad hominem rhetoric, arguably more successful then that it would be now since the public has more knowledge of the President and can make their own observations, Lincoln persevered to meet the greatest challenges any President ever faced.

While still pondering some of the parallels with today’s relentless attacks on our current President, I watched again the 2012 Stephen Spielberg-directed film “Lincoln,” which was almost unanimously praised when it was released, and which I enjoyed a great deal when I first saw it. This time, however, “Lincoln” revealed itself as an ethics corrupter. Continue reading

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Ethics Quote Of The Month: Washington Post Film Critic Ann Hornaday on “Selma”

selma-movie

“How to reconcile facts and feelings, art and fealty to the truth? When filmmakers recall with pride about the deep reporting and research they’ve done for their projects, then they deserve to be held accountable for their projects. For fact-based films, accuracy becomes a formal element, along with acting, design and cinematography. It’s up to each viewer to identify the threshold where artistic license compromises the integrity of the entire endeavor. Cinema has more responsibility in this regard precisely because of its heightened realism, its ability to burrow into our collective consciousness and memory, where the myth has a tendency to overpower settled fact. But viewers have responsibilities, too. If accuracy has become a formal element of historical dramas, then the ensuing fact-checks have become just as integral a part of how we view them. That means it’s incumbent on audiences to engage in a mode of spectatorship that, rather than decide who’s right, can listen to and respect expert critiques, and still open themselves up to a piece of filmed entertainment that speaks to less literal, more universal truths.”

—–Ann Hornaday, Washington Post film critic, on the controversy regarding the counter-factual treatment of President Lydon Johnson in the new film, “Selma.”

The question of whether film makers have an ethical obligation to fairly represent history, and particularly individual historical figures, in their movies has been a topic visited frequently at Ethics Alarms, and I’m not going to re-hash conclusions that have been thoroughly discussed before, such as

…here, regarding the casting of “The Impossible” with a gleamingly light-skinned central family and the changing of the real life heroine from Spanish to British

…here,  discussing complaints that a fictional event was not portrayed accurately in “Noah”

…here, exploring the many falsehoods, some quite despicable, in James Cameron’s “Titanic”

…here, regarding unfair criticism of “Argo”

and here, discussing “Lincoln” screenwriter, playwright Tony Kushner’s inexcusable choice to represent a real life former Congressman voting against the Thirteenth Amendment abolishing slavery when in fact he voted for it.

The conclusion of that last one sums up the lessons of the rest, I think. Kushner’s defense against criticism of the collateral damage his invented facts wreaked was to argue that they were legitimate tactics in the pursuit of drama and “greater truths.” He then compared smearing the reputation of a Congressman, to the detriment of his descendants, to misrepresenting the kinds of socks Lincoln wore. (Kushner can be a brilliant writer, but his ideological utilitarianism is repellant.) I wrote:
Continue reading

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Ethics Quiz (Movie Division): “The Impossible,” Whitewashing, and Betrayal

"Bennett" and Belón

“Bennett” and Belón

I suppose some of you may have thought about this two years ago, when the Spanish film “The Impossible” was first released. I, however, take a while to catch up with my movie-viewing, and though the film was much praised by critics and got Naomi Watts an Academy Award nomination, I had not seen the film until recently. “The Impossible,” about as accurately as a motion picture can, tells the amazing story of how Spanish physician María Belón, her husband Enrique Álvarezs, and her three young sons miraculously  survived the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami when the family was on vacation in Thailand.

It is an engrossing, harrowing movie. I was surprised to find out, however that the family’s name wasn’t “Bennett,” and that they weren’t British, as the movie presented them. Apparently to maximize box office receipts, the film makers decided to take the heroic story of a real family and make the characters “more relatable” by recasting them as English-speaking Brits. There was a minor controversy about the film “whitewashing” the story*, but not much of that made it into the mainstream media. Belón, after all, is white. She was an active participant in the appropriation of story and that of her husband and sons, and they all profited from it, at least financially. Still, the movie’s point of view left a bad taste in the mouths of some international critics. Here is Australian critic Ruby Hamad:

“Based on the true story of a dark haired and darkish-skinned Spanish family, the filmmakers admitted to changing their nationality and casting lily-white actors in order to make the story ‘universal’. In other words, only white people can stand in for the human race as whole. For this reason, Thailand and its people are mere backdrops for the story of a Caucasian family who learn the hard way that even western privilege is no match for the brute force of mother nature.”

Your (two-year late) Ethics Alarms Ethics Quiz, therefore, is:

Is “The Impossible” unethical”?

Continue reading

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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). Continue reading

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