LOS ANGELES: Just three months ago, ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ looked like a strong contender for the movie industry’s biggest prize.
But when the Oscar for Best Picture is handed out on Sunday, the thriller about the decade-long US hunt for and 2011 killing of, Osama bin Laden is unlikely to get its name engraved on the coveted gold statuette.
After a fierce campaign over the movie’s depiction of torture that started in Washington and extended to human rights groups, ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ went from front-runner to also-ran at the Academy Awards.
Despite winning early honours from influential critics in New York, Washington, Boston and Chicago, pundits say the failure of ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ to win traction in Hollywood may have as much to do with its style as the heated debate it has provoked.
“It’s a little cool,” said Fandango.com chief correspondent Dave Karger.
“Usually you need some kind of crowd-pleasing element to have a shot at winning Best Picture at the Academy Awards and that is what (Iran hostage drama) ‘Argo’ has. It has a great rousing emotional aspect to it which ‘Zero Dark Thirty,’ by design, does not have,” Karger told reporters.
Early signs of trouble for ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ came in mid-December when US Senators Dianne Feinstein, John McCain and Carl Levin sent a letter to movie studio Sony Pictures.
They called the film “grossly inaccurate and misleading” for suggesting torture helped the United States track the al Qaeda leader to a Pakistan compound.
The senators cited intelligence records released in April 2012 that showed this was not the case and said the movie “has the potential to shape American public opinion in a disturbing and misleading manner”.
Director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal said repeatedly that the film shows a variety of intelligence methods, not all of which produced results.
Three weeks later, Bigelow was omitted from the Oscar’s Best Director shortlist, chosen by about 5,800 movie industry professionals who make up the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
Bigelow was only one of four big directors to be snubbed and ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ received five Oscar nominations, including one for Best Picture. But Los Angeles Times film critic Kenneth Turan was among those who pointed the finger at Washington.
“Chalk up this year’s (Oscar) nominations as a victory for the bullying power of the United States Senate and an undeserved loss for Kathryn Bigelow,” Turan wrote in January.
In a column in The Wall Street Journal on Thursday, deputy editor Daniel Henninger agreed.
“Had Senators Feinstein, Levin and McCain not saddled up their high horses in a December 19 letter to Sony Pictures denouncing the movie, ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ would not now be out of the running for Best Picture at the Oscars,” Henninger wrote.
Entertainment industry website Deadline.com awards columnist Pete Hammon, said the political attacks on the film certainly had an impact before ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ was released in US movie theatres nationwide in late January.
“But when it opened wide, it actually helped by bringing so much publicity and now there has been a backlash against the backlash,” Hammond told reporters.
By late January, Bigelow and Boal were making speeches, getting magazine profiles, and writing opinion pieces in which they directed critics to the US officials who sanctioned, or turned a blind eye, to harsh interrogation techniques.
Victims of the September 11, 2001, attacks ordered by bin Laden voiced their support, as did departing US defence secretary Leon Panetta, who called it a “great movie”.
Steve Elzer, spokesman for Columbia Pictures, the Sony Pictures unit behind the film, said the studio was very proud of the movie, saying it had generated “an amazing national conversation”.
“‘Zero Dark Thirty’ has been a huge critical and commercial success that has also been praised by a large number of experts, historians and academics outside of the political arena.
“No matter how we do at the Oscars on Sunday, we know this will be a motion picture that will be remembered many years from now. We couldn’t be more proud to have been associated with this film,” Elzer told reporters.
Despite the furore and small protests by human rights activists at some awards ceremonies, ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ has won stellar reviews and reaped more than $100 million at the worldwide box office, most of it in North America.
Review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes gives the film a 94 per cent positive rating. Oscar Best Picture favourites ‘Lincoln’ and ‘Argo’ score 89 per cent and 96 per cent respectively.
Yet ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ has picked up just one major prize in the Hollywood guild awards for directors, actors, producers and writers that are considered a predictor of Oscar success.