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Lincoln, Argo battle looks like a nasty political campaign

February 20, 2013 by Scott Bomboy


The fight between two historical dramas fighting for an Oscar, the movies Lincoln and Argo, has taken on the character of a bitter political campaign, with supporters pointing out flaws and dropping big bucks on promotion.

daniel-day-lewis-lincoln-640x449The Los Angeles Times says the studios behind the two hit films have each spent a record $10 million in promotional campaigns for the Best Picture award.

Each movie portrays key moments in American history: the fight over the 13th Amendment, outlawing slavery, and the Iran hostage crisis during the Jimmy Carter administration.

In Hollywood, the fight is being contested like the Barack Obama-Mitt Romney campaign in 2012. Each studio has bought 30-minute TV infomercials to air in the Los Angeles market, as Oscar voters ponder their choice.

Each movie also has a U.S. president offering endorsements: Bill Clinton for Lincoln and Carter for Argo.

And then there is the mail campaign to potential voters. The Los Angeles Times says Oscar voters received four books about Lincoln from its supporters, and a handwritten note from Steven Spielberg. They also received an Argo DVD.

The soap opera in Hollywood over “Lincoln vs. Argo” spilled into the real world of politics for the past two weeks, when a House member from Connecticut claimed Lincoln deliberately showed two congressmen from his state voting in favor of slavery in a key scene, when in fact they were against it.

Representative Joe Courtney pointed out the mistakes just days before Oscar voters were to start casting ballots. And he wants the movie edited to change the two votes cast in the  dramatic conclusion to Lincoln.

Word quickly came from Hollywood types, in the tradition of damage control, that Courtney had connections to Argo director Ben Affleck, even claiming that Affleck’s campaign appearances helped Courtney win the election in 2006. Warner Brothers, the studio behind Argo, then issued a statement that it had no connection to Courtney

Then, Lincoln writer Tony Kushner went public with his dissatisfaction with Courtney.

“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 said in a letter to Courtney. “I’m deeply heartened that the vast majority of moviegoers seem to have understood that this is a dramatic film and not an attack on their home state.”

Courtney responded that he was amused about the alleged connection to Affleck and happy that Kushner admitted the film was wrong.

But then Maureen Dowd from The New York Times jumped into the controversy, saying in an op-ed titled “The Oscar for Best Fabrication” that Spielberg needs to edit the film.

Both Dowd and Courtney want the movie edited--or shall we say, amended--soon, pointing out that Spielberg has offered free copies of the DVD to any middle school or high school.

In the end, both films have mistakes.

The sharp-eyed contributors to have dug up 22 factual and continuity errors in Argo. Many have to do with the wrong 747 jumbo set for the era; others include Ben Affleck wearing a watch from 2008 and an incorrect version of Solo drinking cups being used in one scene.

One big error, however, was the allusion in the movie that the British and New Zealand embassies didn’t help the six American diplomats during the hostage crisis in Iran.

Affleck told a New Zealand newspaper in October he was sorry for the deliberate slight, but it was done for artistic reasons.

“I was setting up a situation where you needed to get a sense that these six people had nowhere else to go,” said Affleck, who acknowledged that producers knew the British and New Zealand embassies played an intermediary role in safeguarding the diplomats until they could make it to a Canadian embassy.

Also, some Canadians were also upset with Argo because the film downplayed the embassy’s role in getting the diplomats to safe locations and working with American intelligence agencies.

And one account from the journal Foreign Policy points out that the dramatic final runway scene in Argo never happened.

Tony Mendez, the CIA operative in Iran, said in a later report that the only drama was over a mechanical problem that delayed the flight out of Iran.

“We waited until the plane took off and had cleared Iranian airspace before we could give the thumbs up and order Bloody Marys,” said Mendez.

Among the mistakes picked up in Lincoln were the use of wrong coins, wrong flags, and an incorrect door. Also, the sequence involving the Congressional vote on the 13th Amendment was inaccurate in how the roll call was handled.

But as Kushner pointed out, much of the film wasn’t accurate down to the last detail.

“I hope nobody is shocked to learn that I also made up dialogue and imagined encounters and invented characters,” he said in his letter to Courtney.

As bitter as the fight over Lincoln and Argo seems, it’s also much less troublesome than the feud between another picture, Zero Dark Thirty, and members of Congress.

That fight has possible, real-world First Amendment issues, as three prominent senators have requested that torture scenes be “corrected” in the film, saying the depictions are inaccurate.

The correction could come in the form of a disclaimer, but Sony has hired high-profile lawyers to take on the Congress members.

Scott Bomboy is the editor-in-chief of the National Constitution Center.

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