For months, screenwriter Tony Kushner has been considered a shoo-in for an Oscar. But the award-winning playwright with impeccable credentials — “Angels in America, his 1993 play about AIDS, won the Pulitzer Prize and the Tony award as well as half a dozen awards from drama critics — tripped, if not tumbled, last week.
To make the fight in Congress to pass the 13th amendment and end slavery in America more dramatic in “Lincoln,” Kushner changed the votes of two Connecticut congressmen from Yea to Nay. A current Connecticut congressman who could not believe that his state, which fought on the Union side in the Civil War, had voted to uphold slavery asked the Congressional Research Service to investigate. The answer: Kushner had rewritten history. And, with Academy members still voting, Kushner’s Oscar is no longer a sure thing.
Audiences understand that historical movies usually take historical license. “Argo,” “Lincoln’s” competitor for both Best Picture and Adapted Screenplay, is based on a little known rescue of six American diplomats during the 1979 Iran hostage crisis. But “Argo” is basically a thriller with chases and near misses and a fake movie crew, and nobody cares if characters were telescoped or dangers exaggerated.
“Zero Dark Thirty,” another best picture nominee that is also nominated for original screenplay, suggests that important information that led to the capture of Osama bin Laden was gained through torture. The United States political and military establishment vehemently disagrees. But, after the non-existent weapons of mass destruction that led to the Iraq war and the discovery that the CIA uses the simulated drowning called waterboarding, Americans take such government assurances with a whole tablespoon of salt. If “Zero Dark Thirty” lost Academy votes because of the controversy, it gained as much or more at the boxoffice from audiences who wanted to see what the fuss was about.
“Lincoln” is different. It is based on a defining moment in the history of America, and it has been sold as real history – not fake or contrived history, not “based on a true story” history – with the vote in favor of abolishing slavery as its dramatic climax.
“In making changes to the voting sequence,” Kushner said in a statement, “we adhered to time-honored and completely legitimate standards for the creation of historical drama.” (He talks to the NYT's Maureen Dowd at greater length here and to Toh! before the controversy here.)
Academy members may or may not agree. Steven Spielberg, the producer and director of “Lincoln,” ran into similar difficulties in 1997 with “Amistad.” With university professors protesting the historical inaccuracies in the story of Africans brought to America as slaves, who end up defended by former president John Quincy Adams at the Supreme Court, “Amistad” won none of its four Oscar nominations.
Will this prove a tempest in a teapot? The answer will arrive next week.