Opinion: Hustling History–When Truth is Better than Fiction

Dick Zimmer | December 19, 2013 | Opinion
Why can't filmmakers see the story in history?

Dick Zimmer
Because I’m a sucker for any plotline that involves New Jersey, I plan to see the new movie “American Hustle,” inspired by the Abscam scandal of the 1970s. But I’m already disappointed by the caveat that appears on the screen before it starts: “Some of this actually happened.”

If there’s any story that doesn’t need embroidering, it’s Abscam, with its cast of colorful conmen, FBI agents operating on the edge of the law, and politicians so greedy that they accepted bribes from a palpably bogus sheik — all exhaustively documented in untold hours of courtroom transcripts and secretly recorded videotapes.

I only hope that “American Hustle” is as funny as The Selling of Vince D’Angelo, Danny DeVito’s take on Abscam that was released in 1983.

I’ll never understand why moviemakers insist on fictionalizing historical events that are dramatic enough in their own right. Sticking to the facts doesn’t have to result in a tendentious documentary or a lifeless History Channel production.

In writing the screenplay for “Lincoln,” Tony Kushner went to great lengths to ensure its historical accuracy, and that effort helped earn him his Oscar nomination.

When I first saw the movie, I thought I caught Kushner in an obvious error: Lincoln tells his cabinet that he intends to sign the Thirteenth Amendment, which outlawed slavery. (Everyone should know that congressionally approved Constitutional amendments are sent directly to the states for ratification without any action by the president.) But when I got home and did some research I discovered that Lincoln actually did sign the Thirteenth Amendment even though he had no legal reason for doing so.

Still, Kushner took some unnecessary liberties with the truth. For instance, his depiction of the floor debate on the Thirteenth Amendment is characterized by trash-talk that clearly violates the rules of the House of Representatives and would never be permitted by even the most inept Speaker (let alone Schuyler Colfax, who went on to become vice president).

And in the climactic roll call vote on the amendment, Kushner has two Connecticut Congressmen voting against it. As current Connecticut Congressman Joe Courtney angrily pointed out, the Connecticut delegation voted unanimously in favor of the amendment; Kushner’s defense of poetic license doesn’t cut it in this instance.

But such lapses are minor compared to those in “Argo,” the movie about the rescue of American diplomats from the Canadian embassy in Tehran that beat out “Lincoln” for best adapted screenplay. Its script is replete with all sorts of ticking-clock plot devices that were confected only to whip up suspense.

The HBO series “Boardwalk Empire” is another show that refuses to stick to historical fact even when history is dramatic enough. As Judge Nelson Johnson’s 2002 book of the same name makes clear, Atlantic City boss Nucky Johnson (no relation) was smart enough to control South Jersey politics for decades and to become immensely rich without shooting anybody.

And as good an actor as Steve Buscemi is, his character Nucky Thompson is not nearly as interesting and vibrant as the actual Nucky Johnson, who was built more like James Gandolfini than like Steve Buscemi. The real Nucky was tall, muscular, vivacious, outgoing and charming.

It would also be nice if HBO produced Boardwalk Empire in New Jersey so we could see some pines in the Pinelands. But that’s another gripe (and perhaps another column).