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'Lincoln,' 'Argo,' and' Zero Dark Thirty': Reordering History

Awards
by Aljean Harmetz
February 17, 2013 7:48 AM
5 Comments
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Tony Kushner
Tony Kushner

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For months, screenwriter Tony Kushner has been considered a shoo-in for an Oscar.  But the award-winning playwright with impeccable credentials --  “Angels in America, his 1993 play about AIDS,  won the Pulitzer Prize and the Tony award as well as half a dozen awards from drama critics -- tripped, if not tumbled, last week.

To make the fight in Congress to pass the 13th amendment and end slavery in America more dramatic in “Lincoln,” Kushner changed the votes of two Connecticut congressmen from Yea to Nay.  A current Connecticut congressman who could not believe that his state, which fought on the Union side in the Civil War, had voted to uphold slavery asked the Congressional Research Service to investigate.  The answer: Kushner had rewritten history.  And, with Academy members still voting, Kushner’s Oscar is no longer a sure thing.

Audiences understand that historical movies usually take historical license.  “Argo,” “Lincoln’s” competitor for both Best Picture and Adapted Screenplay, is based on a little known rescue of six American diplomats during the 1979 Iran hostage crisis.  But “Argo” is basically a thriller with chases and near misses and a fake movie crew, and nobody cares if characters were telescoped or dangers exaggerated.

“Zero Dark Thirty,” another best picture nominee that is also nominated for original screenplay, suggests that important information that led to the capture of Osama bin Laden was gained through torture.  The United States political and military establishment vehemently disagrees.  But, after the non-existent weapons of mass destruction that led to the Iraq war and the discovery that the CIA uses the simulated drowning called waterboarding, Americans take such government assurances with a whole tablespoon of salt.  If “Zero Dark Thirty” lost Academy votes because of the controversy, it gained as much or more at the boxoffice from audiences who wanted to see what the fuss was about.

“Lincoln” is different.  It is based on a defining moment in the history of America, and it has been sold as real history – not fake or contrived history, not “based on a true story” history – with the vote in favor of abolishing slavery as its dramatic climax.

“In making changes to the voting sequence,” Kushner said in a statement, “we adhered to time-honored and completely legitimate standards for the creation of historical drama.” (He talks to the NYT's Maureen Dowd at greater length here and to Toh! before the controversy here.)

Academy members may or may not agree.  Steven Spielberg, the producer and director of “Lincoln,” ran into similar difficulties in 1997 with “Amistad.” With university professors protesting the historical inaccuracies in the story of Africans brought to America as slaves, who end up defended by former president John Quincy Adams at the Supreme Court, “Amistad” won none of its four Oscar nominations.

Will this prove a tempest in a teapot? The answer will arrive next week.

Awards
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More: Lincoln, Awards, Awards, Oscars

5 Comments

  • Aljean Harmetz | February 20, 2013 7:46 PMReply

    Julia,
    I wasn't aware of how quickly the attack on Zero Dark Thirty started. I suspect it was partly because the government -- and many people therein -- were waiting to pounce. I doubt that even Steven Spielberg could orchestrate such an immediate campaign. Thanks for your well-reasoned response to the story. I almost wish that it had been published as its own thought-provoking story on IndieWire.

    I do, however, still take issue with Kushner's changing the votes of the Connecticut congressmen. Historical license by telescoping characters or making what they said more comprehensible to a 2013 audience is one thing. Actually changing history is something different.

  • Julia Chasman | February 20, 2013 11:58 AMReply

    Aljean, I think this is an important story. But rather than saying that Kushner made a mistake that may cost him the Oscar, I'd say it seems that Kushner had the same problem that all the screenwriters of historically-based films this year (the best dramas we have) had, and handled it in the same way as the other writers -- by dramatic invention. If anything is unfair, I'd say it's the timing of this revelation, coming at the very end of the awards season -- compared with an almost instantaneous attack on ZERO DARK THIRTY, the minute it appeared, and before it had properly opened.

    Maybe it's a leap, but I am among those who believe that ZERO DARK THIRTY and Kathryn Bigelow in particular, were Swift Boated, and that the culprits may have been the marketing teams behind those films which felt most threatened (award-wise especially) by ZDT. How else to explain the immediate and, to my mind, indefensible demonization of that film on the weekend it opened in only a few theaters, to the finest reviews of the year of any film. Before ZDT had opened wide -- so before virtually anyone had seen it -- it was already condemned by everyone from Dianne Feinstein to the acting head of the CIA, who sent a memo to his entire staff, basically telling them not to see the film. It is widely accepted as fact now, that ZDT purports and maintains that torture was essential to the capture of Osama Bin Laden, so effective and thorough was this misinformation campaign. And, talk about snubs -- excuse me Ben Affleck, but what about Kathyrn Bigelow? She was removed from the game before it even got started. And -- I don't think her movie is saying that about torture -- not at all! Torture was portrayed in the film (and this was reported widely, also before the film could open wide, thereby distorting the reaction to it, and dissuading its audience from even going, potentially), but that's it -- it wasn't a pivotal scene, and it was portrayed as a fact -- which it was. But every journalist, including those at TOH and the NY Times, now reports this SLANT as a fact. The campaign worked! Now, it's already ironic that the film that has benefited most by the Swift Boating of ZDT is ARGO, the film which took, by far, the MOST dramatic liberties. As you rightly point out, no one really minds, because no one knew anything about it to begin with. But give the public enough time, and they will start to complain about perceived slights. At a lecture given by Diego Luna recently I heard a Latina women ask what he thought about the unjustness of Ben Affleck playing a Hispanic man, when so many fine Latino actors existed. It took me a minute to figure out what she was talking about, and Diego Luna tactfully moved on to the next question.

    So now LINCOLN too finds itself held accountable for a common form of dramatic license that every historical film takes, and must take, when, for the most part, everyone stood happily by enjoying the completely unfair crucifixion of what they perceived to be their strongest competition for awards.

    The fact that ARGO was a story so little known made it a good choice for creative embellishment, story-wise. Most of what it tells is true, and the rest of it -- the whole second half, really -- could have been true, or might have been -- who knows? But when you're dealing with someone like Abraham Lincoln, or the incredibly recent events surrounding the elimination of Osama Bin Laden -- you're taking much more of a chance, because everyone cares -- some more than they should. And in the case of ZERO DARK THIRTY -- a very fine film by any estimation -- the filmmakers were unfairly punished, in my view, for the brave and mostly uncompromising storytelling they employed, with the body not yet cold, so to speak. And they mostly got it right. I didn't see any of the ZDT team being feted at the White House either, while the LINCOLN clan was being celebrated with special screenings and overnight stays, all widely reported by the press. So yeah, I think it's appropriate that they be held to the same standards as everyone else -- even though the damage is already done for the most part. I just think the public needs to educate itself a little better when it comes to what is "true" in "true stories." I believe that every time you point the camera one way, rather than the other way, you are making a statement -- even in a documentary.

  • Juvenile Cinephile | February 17, 2013 8:01 PMReply

    "....suggests that important information that led to the capture of Osama bin Laden was gained through torture."

    Oh, let's stop this meme now. Torture is portrayed with the all-too celebrated against the clock, stop the bomb idea of using it and it fails. Hummus, tabbouli, sleep deprivation (and unless you think that is torture then I would hate what you think our service academies do to their cadets), and tricking a detainee are used to get relevant information from a detainee that have up an already known name (among a number of tapes Maya gets to connect the dots that showed detainees in duress while also showing detainees talking very calmly with no duress against them to say so) not to mention the information Maya used to get the phone tracking to lead to the compound was in the CIA files the whole time. If anything, the film shows how much the UBL capture went largely on a hunch that even through painstaking processes of elimination of who could not be there it was still not completely a slam dunk with 'Iraq WMD' mentioned more than once in the film having better evidence and easily could have been solved earlier through other methods, namely actually looking through ignored files. That shows a house out of order. No wonder the CIA wants to distance itself from it.

    Also Kushner is one of the few nominees who has defended Zero Dark Thirty. I find this interesting. Affleck and others seem to have avoided the questions of the controversy but it seems that sticking your neck out for another artist's work even when you compete against them for awards is not some no-no.

  • Free | February 17, 2013 6:46 PMReply

    Amistad losing all of its 4 nominations had nothing to do with controversy. It wasn't going to win any of those anyway. Titanic ran the tech categories, and Hopkins was up against Good Will Hunting's Robin Williams and Boogie Nights' Burt Reynolds.

  • pol | February 17, 2013 12:08 PMReply

    Torture propaganda of no more significance than a "fuss?" These are CIA lies sold to the American people to justify a criminal torture state. You don't see a problem with that? ZD30 Torture Scandal Files: http://wp.me/pwAWe-YR

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