'Lincoln' Screenwriter Fires Back at Connecticut House Member Disgruntled Over Errors

Billy House

In what has erupted into a public debate over the role of writing history versus historical drama, Rep. Joe Courtney, D-Conn., on Friday said he is “pleased” the screenwriter of the movie Lincoln has conceded the film erroneously depicted Connecticut’s House delegation as opposing the amendment that abolished slavery.

Courtney was responding Friday to a response by the movie’s screenwriter, Tony Kushner, that was published in a Wall Street Journal blog, in which Kushner concedes that the historical record had been altered. But Kushner’s acknowledgment of that also dishes some combative and caustic language back to the lawmaker.

“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,” writes Kushner. That is a reference to a press release from Courtney on Tuesday tagged, “Ahead of Oscars, Courtney asks Spielberg, DreamWorks to correct Lincoln inaccuracy that places Connecticut on wrong side of slavery debate.” The movie has been nominated for 12 Academy Awards, including best picture.

At another point, Kushner snarkily writes of Courtney’s complaint, “I hope nobody is shocked to learn that I also made up dialogue and imagined encounters and invented characters.”

Courtney said Friday, “My effort from the beginning has been to set the record straight on this vote, so people do not leave the theater believing Connecticut’s representatives in the 38th Congress were on the wrong side of history.”

This controversy erupted on Tuesday when Courtney let it be known he’d written to the film’s director, Steven Spielberg, urging him to correct what he described as an error that suggests two House members from the Nutmeg state had voted against the amendment in 1865.

Courtney advised Spielberg that his skepticism over that notion had prompted him to do some research, including looking at the Congressional Record. He said he learned that in fact all four of the state’s members of the House voted for the amendment abolishing slavery. In his letter to Spielberg, he asked that the error be corrected in the movie’s DVD version.

In his published “Response To Representative Joseph Courtney,” Kushner does admit that some historical details had been altered, acknowledging the legislator is correct that the four members of the Connecticut delegation voted for the amendment. But he also dishes back some counter-accusations that Courtney himself was not historically correct.

“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,” Kushner said.

He added, “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.”

Kushner goes on to explain, “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.”

Kushner writes that he is 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,” he writes.

The screenwriter goes on, “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.”

Kushner jabs, “The Congressman is incorrect in saying that the state was 'solidly' pro-Lincoln. Lincoln received 51.4 percent 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,” Kushner writes.

Courtney said Friday that he considers Kushner’s response a “positive step” but adds, "I still hope a correction can be made in advance of the film’s DVD release.”