“It’s almost like it’s become a fad for politicians to use movies as a publicity platform,” screenwriter Mark Boal told Deadline of the political controversy still swirling around Kathryn Bigelow‘s Zero Dark Thirty tonight at the WGA‘s annual panel discussion with guild award nominees. Until recently the Oscar-nominated screenwriter, along with Oscar-snubbed director Bigelow, kept his feelings relatively close to his chest on the Senate critics who called for investigations into the accuracy and propriety of Zero Dark Thirty‘s account of the intelligence operations that led to bin Laden’s capture and death. With the Academy Awards less than three weeks away, he likened the Zero Dark Thirty political assault to McCarthyism: “You’re talking about an institution that has lower approval ratings than head lice and cockroaches in the American public, so I think anything they can do to, in some cases, avoid the issues that they’re voted in to do, they’ll do.”
Controversy has plagued the Best Picture contender all awards season. The film was the subject of bi-partisan Senate scrutiny in December (“We believe the film is grossly inaccurate and misleading”, read a letter from Senators John McCain, Dianne Feinstein, and Carl Levin) before the Congressional concerns turned to speculation that the filmmakers had been misled by their CIA sources. “There’s a glaring contradiction that would be laughable if it wasn’t so sad”, Boal told Deadline before the panel, “because if we fictionalized things, then why investigate us?”
Oscar-winning screenwriter Dustin Lance Black (Milk) moderated the chat which gathered 2013 WGA Awards nominees Boal, Stephen Chbosky (The Perks of Being a Wallflower), Roman Coppola (Moonrise Kingdom, co-writer Wes Anderson), John Gatins (Flight), Billy McMillin (West of Memphis, co-writer Amy J. Berg), and Chris Terrio (Argo). The actual onstage discussion stayed chummy and controversy-free, as moderator Black (a past WGA winner for Milk) prompted the panelists with questions about finding and sometimes fudging truth in the name of art. With six wildly different films including fact-based dramas, fictional stories, a novel-to-screen adaptation, and a documentary, the “truths” were varied. Argo writer Terrio argued that blurring fact and fiction in the service of storytelling – in his case, compressing real events into a spiritually accurate retelling – is a writer’s tool. “The absence of information is rich ground for drama”, he said, describing how Argo’s suspenseful airport scene came together. McMillin, who edited the West Memphis Three documentary West Of Memphis and co-wrote it with Amy Berg, revealed that their film made use of strategically manipulative editing on producer Peter Jackson’s behest: “It came from him wanting us to sell the idea that these guys were guilty”.
Silver Linings Playbook writer-director David O. Russell was a no-show for the chat, but he had a good excuse. Russell was expected to join the panel but was called last minute to Washington D.C., where earlier in the day he helped announce the introduction of the Excellence in Mental Health Act to Congress. (Life Of Pi writer David Magee was also slated to attend the panel but got stuck in New York due to the weather. Lincoln scribe Tony Kushner, The Master writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson, and Looper writer-director Rian Johnson were not scheduled to attend but are also nominated for WGA honors.)
Russell’s appearance in Washington seals the late-game undercurrent of the Silver Linings Oscar strategy, which evolved over the course of awards season to emphasize (after trying everything from the pic’s feelgood appeal to Robert De Niro‘s return to glory to Jennifer Lawrence‘s breakout chops) its treatment of mental health issues and bi-polar disorder. That Russell raised a son with bi-polar issues, which he’s said inspired him to make the film, has tempered the helmer’s otherwise volatile reputation this season. In an Oscar year in which American politics have played an unusually large part in the popular discussion (Steven Spielberg‘s Lincoln also received flack over the disputed accuracy of a depiction of an 1865 13th Amendment vote), there’s been a silver lining for at least one Oscar hopeful.
Related: WGA Awards Nominations Announced