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.
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.
But 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.
But 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.
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.
“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.)
Having said that, he said he’ll be happy for the filmmakers if “Lincoln” wins the Oscar. Now that he’s had his education in Hollywood politics, care to guess the winners? Courtney laughed and demurred. “I’ll stick to my nice safe snakepit in Washington.”
‘Lincoln’ reviewed by Ann Hornaday, 11/9/12
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