Tony Kushner Fires Back After Congressman's 'Lincoln' Criticism

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Tony Kushner is ready to go to war over Lincoln.

The Oscar-nominated screenwriter who penned the script to Steven Spielberg's historical drama shot back against a harsh letter by Democratic Rep. Joe Courtney of Connecticut, who complained in a publicly released letter that the film was historically inaccurate. His gripe was a local one: in Lincoln, two congressmen from Connecticut vote against the 13th amendment, but in reality, all four of his state's representatives at that time voted for the bill that abolished slavery.

Kushner admits that he did make the change, but defended his artistic right to do so.

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"These alterations were made to clarify to the audience the historical reality that the Thirteenth Amendment passed by a very narrow margin that wasn’t determined until the end of the vote.," he wrote. "The closeness of that vote and the means by which it came about was the story we wanted to tell."

He also explained that they made up new names for the congressmen who voted against the bill, "so as not to ascribe any actions to actual persons who didn’t perform them."

Kushner added, tongue firmly planted in cheek, that "I hope nobody is shocked to learn that I also made up dialogue and imagined encounters and invented characters."

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In a not-so-veiled insinuation that Courtney's letter was meant to grab attention more than honor the legacy of Connecticut -- which, as Kushner pointed out, only narrowly voted for Lincoln in 1864 -- he added, "I’m sorry if anyone in Connecticut felt insulted by these 15 seconds of the movie, although issuing a Congressional press release startlingly headlined 'Before The Oscars …' seems a rather flamboyant way to make that known."

The film, which is nominated for 12 Oscars, has been a hit in the Capitol, and brought about a rare moment of bipartisan cooperation when Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) screened it for their senate colleagues.

The full text of the letter is below:

A RESPONSE TO REPRESENTATIVE JOSEPH COURTNEY

FROM TONY KUSHNER

February 7, 2013

Rep. Courtney is correct that the four members of the Connecticut delegation voted for the amendment. We changed two of the delegation’s votes, and we made up new names for the men casting those votes, so as not to ascribe any actions to actual persons who didn’t perform them. In the movie, the voting is also organized by state, which is not the practice in the House. These alterations were made to clarify to the audience the historical reality that the Thirteenth Amendment passed by a very narrow margin that wasn’t determined until the end of the vote. The closeness of that vote and the means by which it came about was the story we wanted to tell. In making changes to the voting sequence, we adhered to time-honored and completely legitimate standards for the creation of historical drama, which is what Lincoln is. I hope nobody is shocked to learn that I also made up dialogue and imagined encounters and invented characters.

I’m proud that Lincoln’s fidelity to and illumination of history has been commended by many Lincoln scholars. But I respectfully disagree with the Congressman’s contention that accuracy in every detail is "paramount" in a work of historical drama. Accuracy is paramount in every detail of a work of history. Here’s my rule: Ask yourself, "Did this thing happen?" If the answer is yes, then it’s historical. Then ask, “Did this thing happen precisely this way?" If the answer is yes, then it’s history; if the answer is no, not precisely this way, then it’s historical drama. The Thirteenth Amendment passed by a two-vote margin in the House in January 1865 because President Lincoln decided to push it through, using persuasion and patronage to switch the votes of lame-duck Democrats, all the while fending off a serious offer to negotiate peace from the South. None of the key moments of that story -- the overarching story our film tells -- are altered. Beyond that, if the distinction between history and historical fiction doesn’t matter, I don’t understand why anyone bothers with historical fiction at all.

I’m sad to learn that Rep. Courtney feels Connecticut has been defamed. It hasn’t been. The people of Connecticut made the same terrible sacrifices as every other state in the Union, but the state’s political landscape was a complicated affair. The Congressman is incorrect in saying that the state was "solidly" pro-Lincoln. Lincoln received 51.4% of the Connecticut vote in the 1864 election, the same kind of narrow support he received in New York and New Jersey. As Connecticut Civil War historian Matthew Warshauer has pointed out, "the broader context of Connecticut’s history doesn’t reflect what Courtney had said in his letter. The point is we weren’t unified against slavery." We didn’t dig into this tangled regional history in Lincoln because a feature-length dramatic film obviously cannot accommodate the story of every state, and more to the point, because that’s not what the movie was about.

I’m sorry if anyone in Connecticut felt insulted by these 15 seconds of the movie, although issuing a Congressional press release startlingly headlined "Before The Oscars …" seems a rather flamboyant way to make that known. I’m deeply heartened that the vast majority of moviegoers seem to have understood that this is a dramatic film and not an attack on their home state.

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