Category Archives: Historical film

‘Lincoln,’ ‘Argo,’ and’ Zero Dark Thirty’: Reordering History


☞ This post is a follow-up of my previous post. As we have seen, Zero Dark Thirty has had its fair share of presentation on this site with regard to its sacrifice of truthfulness for the sake of cinematic storytelling. But it is not the only recent film, of course, which has been accused of lack of truthfulness or authenticity, as we saw with Spielberg’s Lincoln (and as we’ll see again below). And neither are such accusations limited to so-called “non-fictional films,” as Tarantino’s Django Unchained demonstrates. The problems with Zero Dark Thirty are not easy to leave aside (as my next post will show). Here is a discussion in Indiewire’s blog last month, before the Oscars, on three of the main “non-fictional” contenders’ deviations from what actually occurred. Of the triumvirate, Argo has been relatively unscathed on this site, which I will be correcting shortly. The question is not whether non-fictional films should completely sacrifice themselves at the altar of truthfulness, but the limits of factual deviations, and the tipping point where these these untruths would start to affect our aesthetic judgment. It does seem to be the case that especially in the case Zero Dark Thirty, some reviewers and commentators have found it difficult to have a positive aesthetic assessment of the film, as a result of its blatant factual inaccuracies.

Tony Kushner

“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.”

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Lincoln’s pronunciation: Historical sociolinguistics in the movies


☞ One of the big debates concerning recent American movies is their truthfulness or authenticity. There is much discussion on two of the major movies: Zero Dark Thirty and Django Unchained, as some of the entries on this blog illustrate: on truthfulness; on authenticity. Spielberg‘s Lincoln is not an exception here, except that the comments and complaints do appear to be usually more innocuous than those directed at the two other movies. In the following article by Mark Liberman, we have another linguistic discussion, like the previous blog entry on Lincoln. But this time, it is not on profane concerns, but on historical sociolinguistics. It is a rather positive take on the movie, with an emphasis on its historical value in the study of language.

[Abraham Lincoln, U.S. President. Seated portr...

Did the movie get his language right?: Abraham Lincoln, U.S. President. Seated portrait, holding glasses and newspaper, Aug. 9, 1863 (Photo credit: The Library of Congress)

“From reader JM:

My son Chris (age 26) e-mailed me to ask which was correct: “younger than me” or “younger than I”.  He had been watching “The Patriot” (the movie with Mel Gibson), and noted the use of “younger than I.”  I assume that this would have been the standard in the late 1700s.  When he and I saw the movie “Lincoln” last weekend, I noted that Daniel Day Lewis pronounced what and which, etc. as [hw].  I gather (from Wikipedia, etc.) that the more common pronunciation in both the U.S. and the U.K. is now [w], but couldn’t find anything about the time course of this merger. Is it known for sure that Lincoln said [hw]? Just curious….don’t know anything about how much effort film directors put into this kind of historical accuracy.

The discussion of than in MWDEU suggests that 18th-century usage of “than I” or “than me” would have been a coin flip. As far as I know, there’s been no empirical work on how that coin was biased over time (and space, and register, and social stratum) — this would be a good term project in a linguistics course, and maybe even a good thesis topic.

With respect to Lincoln’s use of [hw] or [w], there’s a survey of relevant evidence in Donca Minkova, “Philology, linguistics, and the history of [hw]~[w]”,  and Lesley Milroy, “An essay in historical sociolinguistics?: On Donka Minkova’s ‘Philology, linguistics, and the history of [hw]~[w]'”, in Anne Curzan and Kimberly Emmons, Studies In The History Of the English Language II: Unfolding Conversations, 2004.”

Labov et al. on contrastive /hw/ and /w/ in the United States (late 20th century)


If Spielberg uses foul language, would Tarantino be clean?


☞ Oh yes… If Spielberg makes use of foul language in Lincoln, one can’t expect the language of Tarantino’s Django Unchained to be clean…

“Quentin Tarantino has never been one to shy away from controversial subjects in his film, be it via graphic violence or explicit language. His latest film, Django Unchained, characteristically, showcases both, but it’s the latter that has enflamed debate.

With the ‘N-word’ being used prolifically in the film, the detractors have been quick to air their political and ethical grievances. Spike Lee, talking to, said, “I am not going to see it (the film). I am not seeing it. It would be disrespectful to my ancestors to see that film.” He added in a post on his page, “American slavery was not a Sergio Leone Spaghetti Western. It was a Holocaust. My ancestors are slaves. Stolen from Africa. I will honour them.””

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The Language of “Lincoln”, by Ben Zimmer | Word Routes | Thinkmap Visual Thesaurus


☞ Another film that has been accused of being inauthentic, at least as far as its use of language is concerned. It must be said however, that one of the vexed problems of writing scripts for historical films is ensuring that the language is not totally out of keeping with the language spoken during the period. The article below is Ben Zimmer‘s appreciation for what the screenwriter Tony Kushner has done for Steven Spielberg’s film Lincoln. Zimmer notes that this is not a simple task of ensuring that the language used is a correct depiction of the language actually used, but the film has to be entertaining as well: the language must not sound too archaic or old-fashioned. The use of profane language might be an attempt to imbue the film with a contemporary feel, but it might not be a complete success, at least to some commentators. Earlier article by Zimmer on this topic.

“…I talked to screenwriter Tony Kushner about how he crafted the dialogue for Steven Spielberg’sLincoln.” I had been intrigued about Kushner’s script-writing process after hearing that he had consulted the Oxford English Dictionary to check any word that might have been inappropriate for the film’s 1865 setting. While the results of this painstaking work are admirable, it’s always possible to nitpick over possible anachronisms.

In the past, I’ve indulged in similar nitpickery over such televised dramas as “Mad Men” (set in the 1960s) and “Downton Abbey” (set in the 1910s and ’20s). Lest it seem that I can’t enjoy any period drama without picking apart the dialogue, I want to make it clear that I’m not particularly bothered by occasional linguistic anachronisms. I agree with what Kushner told me in the interview for the Globe column: in writing a period-specific screenplay, the writer has a duty in “not making it sound like a historical waxwork.” The dialogue must, above all, speak to a contemporary audience. Judicious use of anachronistic language has its place, as long as the audience isn’t distracted by questionable lines.”