US REPRESENTATIVE Joe Courtney, a Connecticut Democrat, has historical truth on his side when he complains that “Lincoln,” the Steven Spielberg movie about the adoption of the 13th Amendment, distorts the Nutmeg State’s role in the congressional vote to make slavery unconstitutional. Whether Courtney also has dramatic truth on his side isn’t so clear, as Hollywood insists that strict factual accuracy must sometimes be submerged when crafting a larger narrative that feels realistic in broad terms.
It’s a matter of interest not only on Presidents’ Day but also at next Sunday’s Academy Awards, with three Best Picture nominees, including “Lincoln,” facing charges of playing fast and loose with facts. Hollywood shouldn’t be held to the same standards as Harvard, and viewers should approach historical dramas with a bit of skepticism. For their part, filmmakers should make good on their own vows to be faithful to the overall arc of the story. By those measures, “Lincoln,” at least, gets a pass.
During the crucial House vote on the 13th Amendment in January 1865, all four Connecticut representatives — Augustus Brandegee, James English, Henry Deming, and John Henry Hubbard — voted in favor. But in the film, two members of the state’s delegation vote against it. That provoked a sharp response from Courtney. “I could not believe my own eyes and ears,” he wrote in a recent letter to Spielberg. “How could congressmen from Connecticut . . . have been on the wrong side of history?”
But as screenwriter Tony Kushner pointed out in response to Courtney’s complaint, “Lincoln” isn’t history — it’s historical fiction. The 13th Amendment passed by a razor-thin margin, and “the closeness of that vote and the means by which it came about was the story we wanted to tell.” The movie took liberties with the details of the roll call to spotlight the uncertainty of its outcome, and to emphasize the overriding reality that Americans, even in Union states like Connecticut, weren’t unified in opposing slavery.
“Lincoln” isn’t the first movie to depart from historical fact in order to make a story more compelling. Mozart wasn’t as boorish as he seemed in “Amadeus.” Scottish hero William Wallace’s troops didn’t really wear kilts into battle, notwithstanding “Braveheart.”
Another of this year’s Best Picture nominees, “Argo,” includes a spectacular car chase that director Ben Affleck acknowledges never happened. “Zero Dark Thirty,” a third Best Picture nominee, has been sharply challenged by Senators Dianne Feinstein, Carl Levin, and John McCain for what they call its “grossly inaccurate and misleading” scenes of CIA officers torturing detainees. (Of all the complaints, this is the most serious; in seeming to suggest that torture produced the information that led to Osama bin Laden’s death, the film violates even the idea of “narrative” truth.)
Still, it’s worth remembering that Hollywood isn’t in the history business, and that “based on a true story” is not synonymous with “strictly accurate.” A little skepticism never hurt anyone.