U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney’s highlighting an inaccuracy in Steven Spielberg’s hit movie, “Lincoln,” is generating Washington buzz and Hollywood blowback, drawing the mild-mannered Connecticut congressman into the world of Oscar intrigue.
With the start of final Oscar voting Friday, an amused Courtney is being asked if his fact-checking was intended to defend a slighted predecessor, Augustus Brandegee of New London, or help a more recent benefactor, Ben Affleck.
Affleck’s “Argo,” an account of the Iranian hostage crisis that takes its own liberties with the facts, is in competition for Best Picture with Spielberg’s “Lincoln.” Conspiracy theorists take note: Affleck campaigned for Courtney in 2006.
“The idea I am trying to sabotage an Oscar is ridiculous. I called Spielberg a genius on NPR yesterday,” Courtney said Friday.
The congressman’s involvement with Hollywood politics began Tuesday.
Courtney, a U.S. history major and self-professed Spielberg fan, took issue with the movie’s inaccurate depiction of a pivotal scene, the dramatic roll call vote on the Thirteenth Amendment abolishing slavery.
“We begin with Connecticut,” a clerk says in the film, opening the roll call. “Mr. Augustus Benjamin, on the matter of this amendment, how say you?”
“Nay,” replies the congressman.
Screenwriter Tony Kushner took two liberties with that moment: the real Augustus had the last name of Brandegee, not Benjamin. And he voted to abolish slavery, as did all four of Connecticut’s congressmen.
Courtney, who lives in Vernon, a community that no longer has a movie theater, says his only agenda was a desire to correct the record, since he expects that “Lincoln” is destined to become a teaching aid once it’s released on DVD.
“I think Kushner and Spielberg should be flattered by that,” Courtney said. “People take this movie seriously. It is a point that is not trivial.”
Dreamworks, the studio behind “Lincoln,” and Kushner initially ignored Courtney.
Then he drew an audience.
Among the news organizations to jump on the story: The “NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams,” the Wall Street Journal, NPR’s “All Things Considered” and the trades, including Variety and The Hollywood Reporter.
“It’s certainly gotten a life of its own,” Courtney said.
(For the record, it also won him a mention in Mad Magazine, a distinction he never dared to imagine as a teenage reader.)
On Thursday, Kushner struck back, conceding the inaccuracy, but dismissing Courtney as a nitpicker who doesn’t understand dramatic license. He also pointedly noted the timing of Courtney’s release and its reference to the Oscars.
“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,” Kushner wrote.
The headline in Salon: “Connecticut congressman bashes Spielberg — and has ties to Affleck.”
Courtney said he is not trying to revoke Kushner’s dramatic license. Yes, Courtney allowed, dialogue often must be invented and events altered for dramatic effect in retelling history on the big screen.
But none of those needs were served by Kushner’s departure from history.
“He could have done no votes from real members that would have created the tension as to how close it was,” Courtney said.
Ironically, one of the early yes votes cast by a Connecticut congressman, James E. English of New Haven, was a moment that Kushner and Spielberg could have used to great effect.
English was one of a handful of Democrats to vote with Lincoln, and his vote prompted applause from the gallery.
The other Connecticut representatives were Henry Deming of Colchester and John Henry Hubbard of Salisbury.
“These guy are pretty impressive people,” Courtney said. “They deserved better, instead of being brushed aside as bit players, that it didn’t matter how they voted.”
Colchester and New London, the hometowns of Deming and Brandegee, are in Courtney’s Second Congressional District, which once was represented by Chris Dodd, the chief executive of the Motion Picture Association of America.
Courtney said he and Dodd have talked about Hollywood’s depiction of their predecessors. He declined to share Dodd’s opinion of his request for Spielberg to correct the error for DVD, but he did describe Dodd’s reaction to Hollywood showing a Connecticut congressman upholding slavery.
He laughed and said, “Dodd slinked down in his seat.”
At least Courtney did not have to defend his motives to Dodd.
Courtney said an entertainment writer asked him, albeit sheepishly, about whether he was doing Affleck’s bidding, telling him that was the hot rumor in Hollywood. Courtney, a Democrat who lost his first race for Congress, then managed an 83-vote win in 2006, said, “I guess Oscar voting is rough.”
Follow Mark Pazniokas on Twitter @CTMirrorPaz