Tag Archives: Tony Kushner

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

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

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☞ 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.”