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Congressman who criticized 'Lincoln' calls Affleck theory 'hilarious'

February 08, 2013|By Steven Zeitchik

Rep. Joe Courtney (D.-Conn.) understands it looks a little strange that he issued a letter chastising Steven Spielberg when it was Ben Affleck who helped him get elected.

But he finds the idea that Affleck put him up to it — or that he took it upon himself in a bid to influence the Oscar race — more than a little absurd.

“It's hilarious, that conspiracy theory,” Courtney said, offering a laugh when asked by The Times. “I'm not smart enough to know when Oscar voting begins.”

If you haven’t been following this little drama, here’s what went down.

After he went to see “Lincoln” on Saturday with his wife, Courtney was bothered by the portrayal of Connecticut's vote on the 13th Amendment. The movie suggests—incorrectly, as it turns out--that the majority of his state's representatives in the House voted against the measure to abolish slavery. So after doing a little research and talking to MPAA chief Chris Dodd, himself a former lawmaker from Connecticut, Courtney issued a letter asking Spielberg and DreamWorks to set the record straight.

“I understand that artistic license will be taken,” Courtney wrote. “But placing the state of Connecticut on the wrong side of the historic and divisive fight over slavery is a distortion of easily verifiable facts,” he wrote. He asked that the mistake be corrected before the DVD release.

In an interview he added that although her realizes “these movies have to short-circuit some of the granular facts, I think it’s a fairly major mistake.”

Courtney was doing what he thought was right: standing up for the reputation of his home state.

But it turns out Courtney had a connection to "Lincoln's" Oscar rival "Argo." That movie's director, Ben Affleck, had campaigned for Courtney during his successful run for Congress in 2006.

In fact, Courtney said in the interview, he credits a rally Affleck held on the University of Connecticut's campus with helping land him in office. Courtney won that race by just 83 votes, and the area around the campus proved to be a strong pro-Courtney voting bloc.

But Courtney maintains that he had no contact with Affleck before writing his missive. In fact, he had only met Affleck at that rally after then-Rep. Rahm Emanuel had helped arrange for Affleck to some tightly contested races. He saw the filmmaker for the first time again a few months ago when Affleck came to Capitol Hill to talk to lawmakers--but that was about the Congolese, a realm Affleck is active in, not anything related to “Argo.”

“We shook hands and reminisced about the ’06 election. That’s as far as sub rosa communications extended,” Courtney said. (Courtney has seen “Argo,” he said, and “thought it was great.”)

On Friday, Warner Bros. was eager to remind voters of its distance from Courtney. A spokeswoman for “Argo” contacted by The Times said that “there was no involvement with the Courtney letter” and said she felt “dismay that anyone would suggest otherwise.”

Still, the incident illustrates how tangled the lines can get when politicians weigh in on Oscar films, as they are doing with increased frequency this season.

As for the matter at hand, well, that was hardly simple either. "Lincoln" screenwriter Tony Kushner soon fired back, issuing his own letter that challenged the spirit of Courtney's criticism.

"I’m sad to learn that Rep. Courtney feels Connecticut has been defamed. It hasn’t been," Kushner wrote. Though he acknowledged that he changed a detail of the vote, Kushner said it was in the interest of showing how narrowly the amendment passed in the House. "I respectfully disagree with the Congressman’s contention that accuracy in every detail is 'paramount' in a work of historical drama.  Accuracy is paramount in every detail of a work of history."

Courtney, speaking before the Kushner letter had come out, said he thought the writer had a greater responsibility because of how people would view this film.

“Looking into the future, this is going to be for a lot of people their one and only education of the end of slavery,” he said. “I would be really disappointed if that mistake was allowed to continue in the name of artistic license.”

At least Courtney will be free of an entanglement on one movie:  unlike many of his colleagues, the lawmaker said he had not seen “Zero Dark Thirty” and thus had no opinion about it.

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Follow me on Twitter at http://twitter.com/ZeitchikLAT

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