Commentary 15 Feb 2013 08:04 am

Dressing down Lincoln

abraham_lincoln_head_on_shoulders_photo_portrait-431x300

Oscar front-runner “Lincoln” came under scrutiny last week for a historical inaccuracy.

The movie, written by Tony Kushner, depicts Lincoln’s fight to pass the 13th Amendment. In the film, two Connecticut congressmen vote against outlawing slavery, making the slim margin by which the measure passes more dramatic.

The problem is that, in real life, all four Connecticut representatives voted for the amendment.

After checking the facts, modern-day Connecticut lawmaker Joe Courtney cried foul in a letter to director Steven Spielberg. Courtney wants the scene changed before the film’s home video release.

Kushner admits that the scene is inaccurate, that he conjured congressmen and bogus voting records from the Nutmeg State (including imaginary names) as part of the “time-honored and completely legitimate standards for the creation of historical drama,” according to a statement in an Associated Press story. He noted that other characters and dialogue in the movie are also fictional.

Kushner isn’t the first screenwriter to take what some see as egregious and unnecessary license with the truth. In 2007, “The Great Debaters” dramatized the victory of an all-black debate team from Wiley College over a Harvard team in the 1930s. In real life, the team won against the University of Southern California. Harvard, after all, sounds much more prestigious. (Sorry, Trojans.)

At the same time that “Lincoln” received a historical dressing-down, Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood,” the 1966 account of a 1959 quadruple murder, came under fire after newly discovered documents revealed that Capote’s depiction of several key actions by the Kansas Bureau of Investigations is inaccurate, putting the lie to the author’s claim that his book was spotlessly true.

The memoir genre — already held to a lower standard of “truthiness” than other non-fiction writing — has been sullied by any number of stretchers and outright lies. The most famous, or infamous, contemporary case is James Frey’s “A Million Little Pieces,” which has more holes than a piece of Swiss cheese in its account of the author’s drug abuse and rehabilitation. The publisher now acknowledges it as “a work of literature.”

Maintaining a sharply demarcated line between truth and fiction, fact and fancy, isn’t as easy as it might appear. The Bible, a source that many take for gospel (pun intended), contains passages that all but the most ardent fundamentalists read as allegory and parable, such as the stories of Adam and Eve and the Tower of Babel. The difference between believers and nonbelievers often boils down to their individual assessments about where the Good Book stops being symbolic and becomes empirically true.

Any assessment of “truth” in a literary work (even one labeled “non-fiction”) should paraphrase a famous statement from the Watergate era: What did the writer know and when did he know it? The assessment should also take into consideration the author’s intent.

William Shakespeare, for example, takes great liberties with the historical Macbeth. He deviates substantially from the facts of the Scotsman’s life as presented in “Holinshed’s Chronicles,” most significantly in how Macbeth came to the throne. Historically, Macbeth had a legitimate claim to the crown and murdered his rival in battle. In Shakespeare’s play, the title character has no such claim and kills the king while he sleeps.

However, Shakespeare’s intent is not to present his audience with history, but to give them a dramatic, satisfying theatrical experience.

Ultimately, “Lincoln” has a similar goal. However, in a film that takes great pains to recreate the look, feel, dress and speech of a particular era in American history, it is unfortunate that an easily avoided inaccuracy — one that didn’t slip through as a mistake but was knowingly altered — will have so many viewers believing that Connecticut lawmakers were on the wrong side of history.

That’s worth some sort of recognition on the forthcoming Blu-ray and DVD release, maybe a mini-documentary or an audio acknowledgement on the commentary track. But I’d stop just short of wanting to see the scene edited or removed.

After all, the mistake is now part of history, and those who demand absolute fidelity to the truth should want it to remain.

chris.schillig@yahoo.com

@cschillig on Twitter

Originally published Feb. 14, 2013, in The Alliance Review.

Trackback This Post | Subscribe to the comments through RSS Feed

Leave a Reply