How 'Zero Dark Thirty's' Torture Could Help Its Oscar Chances

Zero Dark Thirty Bigelow – P 2013

Zero Dark Thirty Bigelow – P 2013

Kathryn Bigelow's film -- the subject of a Senate investigation -- could see a rise in ticket sales and Academy awareness.

This story first appeared in the Jan. 18 issue of The Hollywood Reporter Magazine. 

When it comes to movies, everyone, it seems, is a critic, so three U.S. senators -- Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee; Carl Levin, D-Mich., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee; and John McCain, R-Ariz. -- decided to get into the act. In a Dec. 19 letter addressed to Michael Lynton, chairman and CEO of Sony Pictures Entertainment, they complained that Zero Dark Thirty, the new film from the Oscar-winning team of director Kathryn Bigelow and writer Mark Boal, "is grossly inaccurate and misleading in its suggestion that torture resulted in information that led to the location of Osama bin Laden." The senators later announced a probe into the CIA access afforded Bigelow and Boal.

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The filmmakers responded with a prepared statement defending their work but waited until Jan. 7 -- after Oscar voting had ended -- to fire back at the senators. "I thankfully want to say that I'm standing in a room of people who understand that depiction is not endorsement," Bigelow told the crowd at the New York Film Critics Circle Awards, where she and Boal picked up best director and picture honors.

The senators' letter -- issued the day the film opened in exclusive engagements in New York and Los Angeles -- was shrewdly timed to take advantage of the movie's release. And it resulted in a predictable pop of publicity for both the politicians and the movie. But by hijacking the conversation about Zero Dark Thirty, it also complicated the film's awards path.

Bigelow and Boal, lionized for their work on 2009's The Hurt Locker, already were at work on a film about the hunt for bin Laden when his death was announced by President Obama on May 1, 2011; they quickly adapted to the changed scenario, plunging into additional research and revamping the script they ultimately would film. That was the story they wanted to tell peers on the awards circuit, but instead they found adversaries wanting to draw them into the highly partisan debate about the U.S.' use of torture and its efficacy during the years after 9/11.

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Zero Dark Thirty opened to some of the best reviews of 2012 -- it rated 94 percent positive on Rotten Tomatoes -- but the filmmakers' "just the facts, ma'am" approach resulted in a Rorschach test that has left critics arguing about its political implications. "This new movie is a cool, outwardly nonpartisan intelligence procedural -- a detective story of sorts -- in which a mass murderer is tracked down by people who spend a lot of time staring into computer screens and occasionally working in the field," Manohla Dargis wrote in The New York Times. "It is also a wrenchingly sad, soul-shaking story about revenge and its moral costs." But while also finding much to praise, New York magazine's David Edelstein concluded: "As a moral statement, Zero Dark Thirty is borderline fascistic. As a piece of cinema, it's phenomenally gripping -- an unholy masterwork."

As far as the movie's best picture Oscar prospects go, controversy can take it only so far. Although there have been infrequent exceptions, mostly when the Academy votes, it votes for reassuring, upbeat movies such as, most recently, The Artist and The King's Speech. True, the top Oscar has gone to movies that confronted America's more bitter wartime adventures -- including 1978's The Deer Hunter and 1986's Platoon -- but those films came well after the end of the Vietnam War in 1975, once passions had time to cool. And though the Oscar-winning Hurt Locker was released before the final U.S. troops were withdrawn from Iraq, its focus was the toll that war took on one bomb-disposal unit -- it chose to tell a universal story of men under pressure rather than debate the war itself.

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Zero Dark Thirty is not likely to get off so easily. "The controversy isn't helping it," says one Academy member. Adds a screenwriter, "The authorities are already denouncing it on account of the torture, and I would have to know a lot more than I do to know whether that's fair or not." But, fair or not, now that it has been pulled into the torture debate, Zero Dark Thirty will have to do metaphoric battle on two fronts. On one hand, it has to compete with all of those other films hoping to score the big prize. And a number of them -- Lincoln, Les Miserables, even Django Unchained -- are safely set way back in the 19th century, so whatever contemporary buttons they push are not quite as explosive.

On the other hand, Hollywood could find disquieting the fact that the Senate has interjected itself into the debate. At the moment, the senators just want to know about the contact CIA officials had with the filmmakers. But if they were to try to subpoena the filmmakers themselves, that could trigger lingering memories of former government witch hunts when writers and directors were hauled before Congress, which could lead to a surge of support for Bigelow and Boal. As Cher already put it in a recent tweet: "Kathryn Bigelow is a GREAT DIRECTOR & we DID Torture ppl in The 2 Wars! Why is the Government ATTACKING HER FILM?"