OSCARS: Will Criticism Or Praise Affect Race?

It looks like the U.S. Senate, a body used to politics of every stripe, is now injecting itself into Hollywood’s Oscar politics by taking visible public stands on two major Oscar contenders, Lincoln and Zero Dark Thirty. Disney/Fox/Dreamworks’ Oscar contender Lincoln was the beneficiary of an almost unheard of bi-partisan screening for the U.S. Senate tonight. But that was almost overshadowed earlier today when Deadline broke news of a bi-partisan letter from three key U.S. Senators, Republican John McCain and Democrats Dianne Feinstein and Carl Levin, to Sony Pictures. It complained about certain aspects of the depiction of torture in the hunt for Osama bin Laden as characterized in the studio’s major Oscar contender Zero Dark Thirty. (It opened today in limited release and goes wide on January 11th, the day after Oscar nominations are announced). The scenes in question were roundly denounced by the trio: “We write to express our deep disappointment with the movie Zero Dark Thirty. We believe the film is grossly inaccurate and misleading in its suggestion that torture resulted in information that led to the location of Osama bin Laden.” They said they have reviewed CIA records and know the film’s “implications”  are incorrect.

Whether this kind of ringing denouncement of the admittedly “fictional” film about the hunt for bin Laden is true or not, this is not the kind of publicity the studio wants for its Oscar campaign even though controversy is usually great for box office. With Oscar voting just starting this week any suggestion that the film’s credibility is lacking (particularly from the likes of such high ranking members of the Senate’s Armed Services Committee and Select Committee on Intelligence) is not generally on any Oscar strategist’s wish list.  But Zero Dark Thirty has been enveloped in controversy right from the beginning, and today Sony strongly suggested that the pic is being misunderstood in certain quarters. The Senators are asking the studio to put a disclaimer on the film regarding events depicted as “facts” in the movie. Whether that has any ultimate effect on the film’s awards prospects, particularly at the Oscars, remains to be seen. So far it has cleaned up with critics groups’ year-end honors and fared very well with Golden Globe and Critics Choice Movie Awards nominations. It was also named one of the AFI’s top 10 movies of the year.

Related: ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ Gives Sony Early Awards Heat

Controversies like this have made their mark in past Oscar races with mixed results. Attacks on the credibility of the 1999 biopic, The Hurricane, in which Denzel Washington played boxer Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Carter were widely credited with destroying the early front-running Oscar status of Norman Jewison’s film (it received a standing ovation at its Westwood premiere) and all but ended any shot it had at Best Picture. It got only a Best Actor nod for Washington who eventually lost to American Beauty’s  Kevin Spacey.

2001’s  A Beautiful Mind from director Ron Howard was famously the victim of a whispering smear campaign regarding its credibility in telling the story of Economics Nobel Laureate John Nash. It survived those attacks – which even made it to the front page of the New York Times – and went on to win Best Picture and three other Oscars.

Zero Dark Thirty’s filmmakers director Kathryn Bigelow and writer Mark Boal are familiar with controversy at Oscar time, but in their case it was only indirectly related to their 2009 Iraq war film and awards juggernaut The Hurt Locker. I broke a story then that producer Nicholas Chartier was sending emails basically trashing their key competition Avatar and urging Oscar voters to rise up and vote against that “500 million dollar” film in favor of his movie. This was in clear violation of Academy’s strict rules about civilized campaigning and Chartier was personally banned from the Oscar ceremony, although he did eventually receive his statuette several days after the film went on to win six Oscars including Best Picture. The controversy surrounding his rogue campaign did not harm the movie in the end – although Summit was clearly concerned about what its effect would be.

Related: OSCARS Q&A: Mark Boal

Tonight’s Lincoln screening for the U.S. Senate was organized by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid with the participation of Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. Reid saw the film during its White House screening a few weeks ago and set this up (without direct help from the studio, I am told). Director Steven Spielberg, star Daniel Day-Lewis, producer Kathleen Kennedy, screenwriter Tony Kushner and Doris Kearns Goodwin, author of the book A Team Of Rivals upon which it is based all attended and were planning to participate in a discussion following the 5PM screening. Reid reportedly even got special permission to serve popcorn at their theatre where food is forbidden (that would never happen at the Academy’s own theatre in Beverly Hills). At a recent reception for the film in Los Angeles, Spielberg told me he was thrilled about going to this screening and was looking forward to it. “How ironic that our film may be the last thing they see before voting on the fiscal cliff,” he said. Certainly this kind of opportunity is manna from heaven for an Oscar strategist as it only helps to solidify the film’s gravitas right as Oscar voting is in progress.

Related: OSCARS Q&A: Ben Affleck

And if this weren’t enough action in Washington D.C.  for Oscar contenders todayArgo director Ben Affleck was testifying in front of Congress during a session of the House Armed Services Committee. He called for stronger U.S. leadership in dealing with the tragic humanitarian problems in the Congo, an issue  close to his heart. Although his testimony has absolutely nothing to do with the film, which is strongly Oscar-buzzed and nominated for numerous awards and on the AFI top 10 list, it was a Warner Bros. source who informed me of the hearing.

Sometimes Washington and Hollywood make strange bedfellows especially now that the former’s campaign season is over and the latter’s is just heating up.

  1. glad to see they all have time to watch movies and can find bi-partisan agreement on this issue. would hate if they would actually have to do some real work. lame duck just got lamer.

  2. Sadly, this will affect “Zero Dark Thirty” and probably cost it Best Picture. Many Oscar voters just choose the most convenient political film to liberal causes every year, they don’t care about the quality of the film.

    Fellow liberals will tell voters, a vote for “Zero” is a vote for torture and the film will lose Oscar votes. Its sad, but the Oscars haven’t been relevant for years now anyway.

    1. So you’re saying that the film depicts acts of torture leading to Osama Bin Laden’s capture, but Democrats hate torture, so it won’t win the Oscar.

      You’re implying three really great and logically sound things. Let’s recap:

      1) Republicans are perfectly fine with torture. It’s a blast! They love it.
      2) Movies only depict the things they approve of. Because, obviously, moral gray areas are of no concern to artists.
      3) Democrats connive together to force Academy voters not to vote for things. And those voters will listen to those democrats, because they are… uh… friends with them? Or… maybe something about the Jews?

      Yes. Please keep posting. I love you.

      1. Hollywood’s pretty liberal already. “Thirty” will get hit because none of them want to be seen as “supporting torture.”

        You forget that there will be countless press outings for “Zero,” leading up to the Oscars and liberals will be asking about torture. A LOT about torture to the filmmakers.

        It’s happened before. “A Beautiful Mind” almost lost its Oscar race because of controversy surrounding the film’s lead character, and “The Dark Knight” was labeled a “conservative film” by liberal bloggers, so it didn’t even receive a Best Picture nomination despite high critical praise. The list goes on.===

        Its fecal but yeah… that’s how the Oscars operate now.

    2. Wow. When you’re right, you’re right. I sure called that one.

      All we’re hearing about now is “Torture, torture, torture,” on “Zero Dark Thirty,” on the Oscar trail.

      Just as I predicted.

  3. mccain on moral obligations!?? the echo of sam irvin’s voice after mccain’s savings and loan ferrago still rings though the senate chamber in its deep-voice carolinan tones: “you sold yo’ office” the man who led the watergate hearings said to the then junior senator frm arizona…

  4. FWasn’t the complaint before that the movie was getting too much inside information? It seems like they can’t win either way.

  5. I haven’t yet seen Flight (not going to win but maybe Best Actor nod), Lincoln, or Zero Dark Thirty yet but right now I’m Argo all the way!

  6. I don’t see why we need to use torture to get information from Terrorists.

    Why can’t we use words like “Pretty please” to get the information we need? Maybe some of these guys that want to crash a jumbo jet filled with women and children just need a hug? Maybe the guy planning on igniting a dirty bomb near a crowded stadium had a poor childhood and just needs to talk about it?

    1. I agree. McCain says the CIA records didn’t show torture was used in getting the info. As if they would write down that they used torture in their report. Duh! McCain needs to ride off into the distance.

  7. I don’t know how Academy members will vote, but I just can’t bring myself to sit through torture scenes in films these days.

    I’m not going to see this film. We can’t deny that the USA government tortures. It’s hard to tell the good guys from the bad anymore.

  8. The political issue (U.S. politics, not Oscar politics) is not about whether torture was used in the hunt for OBL – torture was used, whether they show it in the film or not.

    The issue is whether using torture for interrogation was *effective* – and so far all credible investigations into this subject say that it was not and is not effective.

    In fact, no one can point to any evidence that it’s been effective at all. Which means our government has been torturing people with nothing to show for it. So regardless of whether you have moral concerns about torture or not, it’s a bad thing for us, since it helps our enemies recruit against us, but doesn’t give us any value.

    The really interesting thing is that the evidence seems to indicate that saying ‘pretty please’ is probably more effective.

    The FBI uses entirely different interrogation techniques, where they develop a friendly relationship with the people being interrogated, and then ask them nicely (pretty please) for information. And they have quite a bit of evidence that this method works very well. Their biggest success to date is the other big baddie of our times, Saddam Hussein. The FBI got him to sing, and they did it not by torturing him, but by building a personal relationship of trust, and then just asking him.

    The problem with the FBI’s more effective method is that people think it takes too much time (though there are some arguments against that impression also). And when lives are at stake for real threats happening right now, people don’t want to take the time.

    But however fast torture may seem, since it just doesn’t seem to work, it’s causing us alot more harm than good. And regardless of your moral concerns (or lack thereof) regarding torture, I’m a big fan of not wasting time and reputation on things that don’t work.

    Regarding the Oscar politics, if I was an Oscar voter, I would hold this against the film makers, because it does cut to the accuracy of their portrayal and the depth (or lack of depth) of their research. Although there are probably very few Academy voters that know alot about this subject, I do think it will affect some of the voters. Whether it derails the film’s chances completely remains to be seen – based on the current awards circuit standings, ZDT is still the front runner.

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