Wednesday, 27 February 2013


Historical accuracy was the big issue surrounding this year's Oscars; would that it dominated the national discourse on any more meaningful level. I've never really understood why the words 'based on a true story' carry such value for filmmakers, whether the audience really does feel more compelled by a story because it's true, or whether perhaps it makes it easier for them to suspend their disbelief. The problem with the debate over factuality is a two-edged sword: we need to indulge artistic license, but we also need to understand misrepresentation, when said distortion has a point. Otherwise we wind up like the Sports Illustrated writer Peter King, who told his audience he was glad his personal pick for best picture, Argo, had won the Oscar. He wrote the following: 'yes, it was partially historically inaccurate, all those Hollywood historical re-enactments are. But it was a rollicking good time with some education thrown in at the same time'. Awkwardly expressed as it is, the point might be said to encapsulate America now: yes it's inaccurate, but it's educational!

The main controversy, of course, concerned Zero Dark Thirty, in large part because it did indeed claim to be factual, based on classified documents provided by the CIA, the sort of things other people get sent to prison for doing. This was important because the film wound up being judged in large part on its moral position about torture, a position staked out without leaving much wiggle room because of its conclusion, against the run of fact as established by the CIA itself, that torture in this case accomplished its goal, namely killing Osama Bin Laden. It's possible the CIA lied about the efficacy of torture in this instance, but having admitted they do torture, why would they? And since the film is basically constructed as a saga of justice or revenge for 9/11 and (also inaccurately) 7/7, these points argue against its being taken as educational.

Argo, meanwhile, turned one aspect of the escape of Americans marooned in Tehran following the fall of the US Embassy into a CIA thriller. There was some criticism of the way the filmmakers downplayed the role of the Canadians in facilitating the escape—the issue of passports and air tickets was handed by the Canadians, not the CIA, with no dramatic hitches—and of course turned the exit from the airport into a chase scene, with Iranians apparently firing on a passenger aircraft (without the pilot being aware) but still giving the plane clearance to take off. The CIA's creation of a movie as cover for the exit makes for a more entertaining film than the 1981 TV movie Escape From Iran, written by my friend Josh Chetwynd's father Lionel, which basically lays out the way things happened on the ground, without the CIA, so you can understand Ben Affleck's need for some dramatic license. But Argo also gratuitously blames the British and New Zealanders for turning the escapees away, when in reality the Brits took them in and the Kiwis transferred them to the Canadians, where it was thought, as Americans, they would blend in better. Now there's an historical assumption that requires some consideration.

Lincoln never states 'based on a true story', but the screenplay was based, in part, on Doris Kearns Goodwin's excellent Team Of Rivals. This in itself is fascinating, because the story of the passage of the 13th Amendment, the focus of the film, accounts for exactly four of the 900-odd pages in Goodwin's book. Thaddeus Stevens receives only four mentions in the entire book. Furthermore, the film is set after the period in which you might best consider Lincoln's cabinet a true 'team of rivals'. By 1864 he had already begun weeding dissent out of the cabinet, as the film points out with Hal Holbrook's Preston Blair, whose son Montgomery's resignation as Postmaster General Lincoln had demanded not long before. What the screenplay seems to have borrowed more is the general tenor of Lincoln's political nous, his demeanour, his stories and lines, and an even more general portrayal of those around him: Seward, Stanton, and Wells in particular.

Perhaps this was to create a sort of imprimatur for the film. But the reality is that few questioned the film's veracity, apart from things like the idea of a 19th century president having pierced ears, like some 18th century pirate (or 20th century actor) or a bust of Woodrow Wilson decorating 1865 Washington. But one scene, the start of the House roll-call vote on the 13th amendment, did create a small controversy. The roll call begins with Connecticut, and two representatives, given fictional names, vote 'no', sending up shockwaves round the House. And around Connecticut as well, after congressman Joe Courtney pointed out that Connecticut's four representatives all voted FOR the amendment. He didn't feel the need to point out to the filmmakers that since California was also a state, Connecticut would not have started any alphabetical listing anyway.

Courtney was accused of trying to influence votes to Argo, which made little sense, and screenwriter Tony Kushner explained he was simply using artistic license to build suspense. For a vote whose result the audience, at least those aware this was based on a true story, already knew. Kushner also wanted to show northerners opposed to the bill. And later, when a local historian pointed out that Connecticut was a state  divided almost evenly over the race issue, and relatively slow to ratify the amendment in the state legislature, the change was said to portray a broader kind of truth.

In fact the added dramatic effect is minimal.Indeed,one of Connecticut's four congressmen, English from New Haven, was a Democrat, so simply showing his yes vote might have provided as much, or even more, drama. The haphazard way the rest of the roll call is portrayed in the film, trying to stretch suspense down to the last vote, while focussing on those Congressmen we've already followed, means historical accuracy isn't crucial to the filmmakers. And it's hard to argue suspense is intensified by the filmmakers cutting to Mrs. Lincoln's cheat sheet tabulating the votes, which intensifies only our feeling they assume their audience are morons. But the change of Connecticut, like Argo's equally gratuitous throwaway diss of the Kiwis and Brits, appears in the end just meaningless indulgence.

Because the film adheres rather closely to real people, and even the way those people looked, it's odd they'd all of a sudden use fictional characters to express a position they could easily have found real people from the North to represent. For example, there were enough no votes from New York, which was, last time I looked, a 'Northern' state. And in fact, there was only one, from Maine, among the six New England states. So why not show New York? Well, the film-makers said they wanted to go in alphabetical order. So why not start, as noted, with the state which actually came first in alphabetical order? In fact, California's three congressmen all voted yes as well, so it would have been no worse than changing the Connecticut vote.

Could it be because California is Steven Spielberg's state, and California is the state in which Hollywood is located and the filmmakers didn't want to show their state in a bad light, even retrospectively? Why not use New York? Could it be because that is Tony Kushner's home state, and the state where the money behind the industry lies, and the filmmakers didn't want to show New York in a bad light, even retrospectively, and even if it were true? In fact, the movie at one point mentions Tammany Hall, but makes very little of the fact that Secretary of State William Seward was from New York, his career made by Thurlow Weed, the Republican boss of the state (as opposed to the Tammany-controlled city) and Weed was a source of laundered funds for campaigning in Connecticut, precisely because the state was so divided. If the film might be said to have a serious political flaw here, it may be that it plays the vote-bribing for fun, when in reality the politics of the time was immensely corrupt on a serious level, though in fairness James Spader's Bilbo does announce the prices at which congressmen are available. Not much has changed since then, because they still, as Lincoln remarks, sell themselves cheap.

Thaddeus Stevens' relationship with his housekeeper Lydia Smith (played by S. Epatha Merkerson) raises some questions of 'anachro-correctness' that I mentioned in part I of this essay. The reveal of their conjugal state may have surprised people; it's not an historical fact, but it was the subject of much gossip at the time. That Stevens did not leave her his house, but did leave enough money for her to buy it, and that his family would sell it to her, would argue for a special relationship, but we do tend to define such things in terms of 21st century sexual politics. Some modern scholars believe Smith to have been a lesbian, on the grounds of her activities in women's groups in Washington—something Elizabeth Keckley, Mrs. Lincoln's seamstress and perhaps confidant, did with her. Smith also patterned herself on Mrs. Lincoln; by this logic my mother was a lesbian obsessed with Jackie Kennedy. It was argued to me that Ms. Smith and Keckley weren't 'sitting around waiting for Lincoln to do something'. Which also doesn't make them lesbians.

But it leads to the most serious concern raised about the film, and that is its portrayal of the role of black people in the efforts to abolish slavery, and the criticism that more is not made of their positive actions. This follows much modern historical research showing the efforts black people made to bring about their own freedom, and it was a major part of the re-evaluation exhibited in the Ken Burns's Civil War documentary—a strand of argument sometimes overlooked beneath the honeyed traditionalism of Shelby Foote. This was a follow up to the earlier, crucial change in the historical consensus, putting slavery back as the primary cause of the war—not 'states rights' or 'economic difference' or anything else. Slavery was the root of the divide between North and South and it became inarguable to think otherwise.

However, that does not mean the abolition of slavery was the reason Northerners fought in or supported the war. Indeed, Lincoln sold the war as a mission to keep the Union together until such time as he could issue the Emancipation Proclamation and then fight for the Thirteenth Amendment. This is explained pretty clearly in the film. And yes it is explained largely from the political point of view of the men involved because, firstly, the movie is called Lincoln, not Slavery, secondly, the reality is that these men were in the arena where the legal changes to governance were made, and thirdly, blacks were not a voting block that influenced these men. The movie is the story of persuading white men to vote to free the slaves, and the question of those slaves' ultimate equality is not at that point fully settled, a point the film makes bluntly, and which history has made with even more bluntness.I thought the similar criticism better-founded when it was made of Spielberg's Amistad, which swiftly became the story of John Quincy Adams, but that is not the case here.

Much was made of the failure of figures like Frederick Douglass to appear in the film, and indeed, in Goodwin's book there is a fine moment when Douglass finally gets in to the celebration party after Lincoln's second inaugural, and the President makes clear his importance. His stand in, perhaps, is Mrs Keckley, and perhaps Gloria Reuben's performance is the litmus test for feelings on this matter—is she a passive character, 'waiting' for Lincoln, or does she express herself actively, within the context and constraints of the times? Indeed, I wondered at her presence in the House gallery, not least because later in the film, when black people are welcomed into that gallery to watch the vote, it is hailed as 'the first time'. I'm not sure more would be gained by seeing her and Mrs Smith attending meetings. Look closely and you'll see blacks at Lincoln's inauguration, celebrating in the streets, and, most importantly, in the war. The presence of black soldiers fighting for their own freedom is constant throughout the film, and when the Confederate peace delegation arrives in Union territory, their escort is made up of black trooopers. This is a key emotional moment, and for me says more about the efforts of individuals than the presence of Douglass might have.

This is not a question of historical accuracy as much as historical interpretation; you can believe the story of the passage of the Amendment, the arguments within Congress, and its relation to the ending of the war cannot be told without more obvious reference to the efforts of black leaders, but it's hard to argue those stories aren't conveyed with reasonable accuracy without each story. It's like the question of using the word 'nigger', one which I'm sure we will get to when I write about Django Unchained—it would be nice if we could eliminate it from some aspects of modern usage, but it's hard to convey the hatefulness of the word, and the horror of the times, without showing the times as they were. Lincoln, apart from the strangeness of tampering with my own state's history, strikes a pretty decent historical balance overall. I compared Spielberg to John Ford in Part I of this essay—and here he seems to have tried to, as the book did, catch the legend by getting at the essence of the fact.

1 comment :

Chris said...

Nice couple of posts on Lincoln, Mike. In his deathbed scene I wondered how the President’s corpse appeared to be lit from heaven. Perhaps this shows the difference between the UK and US where Americans think their Presidents are above mere mortal politicians. I liked Daniel Day Lewis' performance a lot but he seemed to be too nice, too approachable by black soldiers and always ready to have a cute minute with his son at moments of national crisis. Even his corrupt jobs for votes was nice and his scene with James Spader more of a giggle than a Watergate. Overall, I liked the movie a lot but I’d have liked a bit more dirt.