Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Is it so hard to understand why CT Rep. Joe Courtney is upset by this misrepresentation in LINCOLN?


Democrat Joe Courtney has represented CT's 2nd CD since 2007.

"I'll stick to my nice safe snakepit in Washington."
-- Rep. Joe Courtney (D-CT), reflecting on his
accidental immersion in the politics of Hollywood

by Ken

Here's another one for the "You Don't Know Whether to Laugh or Cry" file.
[Connecticut Dem Rep. Joe] Courtney told us Monday he was captivated by the movie until it came to that moment: How, he wondered, could a Connecticut congressman have voted that way? “Our state abolished slavery completely in 1848. Children of slaves were emancipated by 1784,” he said. “The Harriet Beecher Stowe house in Hartford is a shrine in Connecticut history.” Courtney checked and discovered that the movie was wrong: In fact, all four of the Nutmeg State’s delegates voted for the 13th amendment.
-- from WaPo's Reliable Source report, "Rep. Joe Courtney gets lesson in Oscar politics in debate over 'Lincoln" accuracy"
Let's back up a bit. Here's the start of the Reliable Source report (links onsite):
Rep. Joe Courtney says he had no idea he was wading into controversy when he questioned the accuracy of a key scene in “Lincoln.”

After all, he knows Washington politics, not Hollywood politics.

Last week, the Connecticut Democrat called on Steven Spielberg to “correct an historical inaccuracy” in the Oscar-nominated box-office hit -- a scene, at the film's climax, suggesting that two of his state's three representatives voted against outlawing slavery in 1865.

[Here's the Wall Street Journal's account. -- Ed.]
Then follows the paragraph I quoted at the top of this post. I don't know about you, but I really do get why Representative Courtney reacted the way he did, especially after he checked his assumption that the detail in the film couldn't be right and, no doubt much relieved, found that he was right. History matters, and relative to a lot of these United States, Connecticut has an OK record on the slavery question. Sure, the fact that it was legal until 1848 is nothing to brag about, but it counts for something that this blight had been corrected by 1848, when the Civil War was just a dark cloud on the distant horizon.

However, as the Reliable Source report notes, the congressman's grounding in DC politics didn't in any way prepare him for the political minefield he apparently inadvertently stepped into. If you or I were to write a letter to Steven Spielberg, that would be one thing. (Actually, it would probably be nothing, but never mind.) When a U.S. congressman writes a letter, though, well, it sets thoughtful -- or perhaps cuckoo -- minds a-thinking.
The timing of Courtney’s letter, three months after the movie’s release, set off alarms in showbiz circles: Ballots had just gone out to Oscar voters. Was the congressman trying to influence the Academy Awards in favor of another contender?

Don’t laugh: Oscar campaigns can be as multilayered and dirty as political races, with producers pushing whisper campaigns against rival films to complement the glowing ads and charming talk-show spots for their own. Meanwhile, conspiracy theorists noted, Courtney had a debt to Ben Affleck, whose “Argo” is up against “Lincoln” for Best Picture: The star briefly campaigned for him in his extremely close 2006 race.
Ah, so Representative Courtney is presumed to have been feigning concern about his state's reputation as part of a conspiracy to do his benefactor Ben Affleck a solid. Well, sure, look at the timing. The movie has been out for three months, and only now, during this cesspool of dirty dealing that is Oscar voting, has he piped up with his complaint. Here's the Reliable Source again:
Courtney has a simple explanation for why he dropped his bomb on "Lincoln" last week: He only just saw the movie.

"Between the campaign and the lame-duck session it was impossible to get out to see some movies," he told us. A week ago Saturday, he and his wife finally had a night off and found it playing at a second-run theater.
Naturally, Lincoln screenwriter Tony Kushner has answers too.
A couple days after Courtney raised his objections, screenwriter Tony Kushner acknowledged that he tweaked the scene -- not to defame Connecticut, but to highlight “the historical reality” that the vote indeed was very close -- and chided the congressman for taking it so literally. “I hope nobody is shocked to learn that I also made up dialogue and imagined encounters and invented characters,” he added in a letter reprinted by the Wall Street Journal.
This is one of the reasons I'm always uneasy when the line between nonfiction and fiction is blurred. It becomes OK to highlight historical reality by means of untruths.
“I get it,” Courtney told us. “Screenwriters are not obligated to present a documentary. But to me, the vote is so significant. . . And this will be a movie like ‘Schindler’s List,’ like ‘Amistad,’ that is going to be a teaching tool, and Spielberg is clearly creating this movie for this purpose.” (Courtney’s crusade played well back home in Connecticut, judging from a number of grateful.newspaper editorials.)
I suppose viewers of the movie know that they're not seeing a documentary. But amid all the pretensions to historical accuracy, do those viewers have any idea what in the movie is true and what isn't? Will non-Connecticut moviegoers have any reason to question the apparent "reality" that even from a state as anti-slavery by the outbreak of the Civil War as Connecticut, two-thirds of its congressmen voted against the 13th Amendment?

Sorry, but for me, it's just a little too convenient a piece of historical rewriting to stretch today's over-honored "two sides to every argument" proposition to an issue on which, at least in this case, there weren't two sides. I don't have any trouble getting why the congressman reacted the way he did.

I suppose there is something to be said for the idea that a congressman has to be careful about what he attaches his official standing to. After all, if, say, Mrs. Courtney had written the same letter on her personal stationery from her home address in Connecticut, nobody would have heard about it.

But that's the thing too: Nobody would have heard about it.

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