Editor’s note: This is part of a 32-part series dissecting the 85th Academy Awards, brought to you by the Large Association of Movie Blogs and its assorted members. Every day leading up to the Oscars, a new post written by a different LAMB will be published, each covering a different category of the Oscars. To read the other posts regarding this event, please click here. Thank you, and enjoy!
By Marshall of Marshall And The Movies
“Zero Dark Thirty” has taken one of the stranger awards season trajectories I’ve ever seen. The movie has faced unprecedented scrutiny, extending far beyond the normal critical gauntlet and reaching as high up as some of the most powerful Senators in Congress.
After Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal collaborated to massive Oscar glory on “The Hurt Locker,” they fixed their sights back on the Middle East for the United States’ failed hunt for Osama bin Laden. Then we got him on May 1, 2011, and the entire course of the movie changed. As they searched for the information to make the film as accurate and journalistic as possible, they found themselves under the microscope of conservative lawmakers. They believed Bigelow and Boal received inappropriate access to intelligence information, demanding the release of documents that they thought might expose the film to be pulling a pro-Obama agenda. (This is quite ironic in retrospect, as you will soon see.)
The controversy of the summer subsided and the film slipped to the background of the Oscar conversation as heavies like “Argo,” “Silver Linings Playbook,” and “Life of Pi” surged to the forefront of the conversation. But “Zero Dark Thirty” struck on the final weekend of November, following the rapturous fan reception to “Les Misérables.” Sony cleverly decided not to embargo critical reactions to the film, allowing them to quickly articulate their praise. On the other hand, Universal held full reviews of “Les Misérables” until December 12, surprisingly unleashing an unexpected heap of excoriation on the film.
All of a sudden, it appeared that “Zero Dark Thirty” had totally upended the season. It won Best Picture and Best Director from the first two critical groups to announce, the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Board of Review. Lightning looked like it was about to strike the same place twice – and within 4 years!
Then, seemingly out of nowhere, the film got hammered by accusations that it was promoting and glorifying torture. Critics begin to claim that the film implied that enhanced interrogation techniques led us to capture Osama bin Laden, an implication that got John McCain and Dianne Feinstein up in arms on Capital Hill. Some thought the film apologized for the use of torture, while others thought it was a propagandistic support of it. New York Times columnist Frank Bruni wrote that Dick Cheney would have gotten a kick out of the film, while Guardian writer Naomi Wolf went even farther and compared Bigelow to Nazi propagandist Leni Riefenstahl.
Bigelow and Boal responded – but about a month too late. They began to speak out on their rights as artists to honestly portray a portion of the War on Terror that clearly exists. “Depiction is not endorsement, and if it was, no artist could ever portray inhumane practices, no author could ever write about them, and no filmmaker could ever delve into the knotty subjects of our time,” Bigelow brilliantly articulated. Her choice was to include it in the film or whitewash history. Either way, they were going to face criticism.
And by the time they decided to speak forcefully, the accusations had taken their toll. As it opened to nationwide audiences, it faced protests from Academy members Ed Asner and Martin Sheen. Though they eventually recanted their criticism and high-profile figures like former CIA director Leon Panetta stepped forward to praise the film, it was too little, too late.
The film managed to score 4 Golden Globe and 5 Critics Choice nominations including Best Picture and Best Director, but the film largely fell victim to the conversation about torture in the Academy Award nominations. Bigelow was snubbed for a Best Director nomination despite being recognized by the Directors Guild, leaving the film with a relatively paltry 5 nominations.
While “Zero Dark Thirty” looked early on like a serious threat to win Best Picture, it now looks like a longshot at best. In fact, if it manages to win any Oscars, I will be surprised. Chastain seems to have slipped to third place behind Jennifer Lawrence and Emmanuelle Riva. Mark Boal’s screenplay faces stiff competition from Quentin Tarantino’s “Django Unchained” and Michael Haneke’s “Amour.” Perhaps it will win Best Film Editing or Best Sound Editing, but I think enough Academy members will vote in fear of being judged by history to leave “Zero Dark Thirty” empty handed on Oscar night.