Oscars: Will the judges let truth get in the way of a best picture award?

Three contenders are accused of rewriting history. Tim Walker explains how Osama, Abe and Iran got the Hollywood treatment

The first round of this year’s movie awards season went to Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty, which depicts the CIA’s decade-long manhunt for Osama bin Laden. 

At the New York Critics’ Circle Awards on 3 December the film was named Best Picture, and Bigelow Best Director. Within a week, it won again, at the National Board of Review Awards, where its star, Jessica Chastain, also picked up the prize for Best Actress. In the lead-up to its opening weekend, Zero Dark Thirty was praised as the most convincing and accurate portrayal yet of the War on Terror. Richard Corliss, reviewing it for Time magazine, said definitively: “You can plan something else for Oscar night... Zero Dark Thirty will win Best Picture”.

Then, the film was released into a swirl of controversy – and the prizes dried up. Since December, it has won almost no major accolades besides a Golden Globe for Chastain, and a Writer’s Guild Award for the film’s screenwriter Mark Boal.

When the Academy Awards nominations were unveiled, Ms Bigelow was unexpectedly omitted from the Best Director category. Now, the film is an outsider for Best Picture, and the odds have lengthened on Ms Chastain taking home her first Oscar tomorrow night.

Jon Weisman, awards editor of Variety, says, “When people look back at this year they’ll see the controversy surrounding Zero Dark Thirty, which took a movie that was winning critics’ prizes almost on a daily basis out of the running.”

The film’s publicity campaign boasted of its journalistic approach to its material, yet it was claims of factual inaccuracy that generated the controversy. Zero Dark Thirty begins with a series of graphic scenes in which a detainee is water-boarded, sleep-deprived and sexually humiliated. A scrap of intelligence that he later provides to his interrogators is portrayed as a potentially significant piece of the intelligence puzzle that led to bin Laden. Three senators, including Californian Democrat Dianne Feinstein and Republican former presidential candidate John McCain, signed a letter in December to Michael Lynton, the chief executive of Sony Pictures, which produced the film, describing that portrayal as “grossly inaccurate”.

The chorus of disapproval grew in volume. David Edelstein, film critic of New York magazine, named Zero Dark Thirty his film of the year, but also claimed it “borders on the politically and morally reprehensible.” According to the Los Angeles Times, one Academy member was so outraged by the torture scenes that they called on fellow Oscar voters not to reward the film. Michael Morell, the acting director of the CIA, sent a message to agency employees, saying, “Zero Dark Thirty creates the strong impression that the enhanced interrogation techniques that were part of our former detention and interrogation program were the key to finding bin Laden. That impression is false.” By February, Time was calling it “The most divisive motion picture in memory”.

And yet, among the nominees for tomorrow’s Oscars, Bigelow’s film cannot claim the monopoly on controversy. “People have also questioned Argo’s depiction of history, and recently Lincoln,” says Weisman. “Django Unchained was questioned about its violence and treatment of slavery. Silver Linings Playbook was questioned about its treatment of mental illness. That’s what the conversation has been about: whether the films told the truth or not, whether they were being fair.”

Most awards seasons see rumours of negative campaigning alongside the positive. In 2010, for example, Nicholas Chartier, one of The Hurt Locker’s producers, was banned from attending the Oscars after he sent an email to Academy members urging them to vote for his film instead of Avatar (they took his advice nonetheless.) In 2013, though, Washington is doing Hollywood’s dirty work for it. This month, Connecticut congressman Joe Courtney penned a letter to director Steven Spielberg, complaining that Lincoln falsely depicted two of his state’s Representatives voting against the abolition of slavery; he demanded Spielberg acknowledge and correct the mistake before the film is released on DVD.

Ben Affleck’s Iranian hostage drama Argo, now the favourite to win Best Picture, contrasts with Zero Dark Thirty by painting a positive portrait of the US intelligence services. Rather than trumpet his film’s adherence to the historical record, however, Affleck has been clear from the start about his tinkering with the truth. Tom O’Neil, editor of awards prediction website GoldDerby.com, saw the actor-director speak at the first public screening of Argo in Los Angeles, and says, “Affleck said right away that the chase scene at the end of the film never happened; it was manufactured for theatrical effect. He was very clear about that upfront, and he has not paid a penalty for it.”

Academy members are the last awards voters in Hollywood to mark their ballots, which means they have an entire season in which to be influenced by buzz or controversy. But if they like a film, why would they be swayed to vote against it? “They’re not just voting for the recipient of an award,” O’Neil explains. “They’re choosing films that will look good in the history books, and they don’t want those movies to be tarnished by questions of legitimacy.”

Working Title’s Eric Fellner, the producer of Best Picture contender Les Misérables, suggests it’s not controversy that has confused this year’s race but simply that, “There’s loads of good movies, and nobody’s 100 per cent sure what will win. There’s been so many surprises along the way, and there’s still room for upset... So many external factors determine whether you win or not, and I genuinely believe the big win is just to be nominated, and having audiences see your film.”

Audiences have seen this year’s films in their droves. The nine Best Picture nominees have grossed an extraordinary $2bn (£1.3bn) worldwide between them, with six taking more than $100m (£65m) each at the North American box office. Last year only one of the nominees, The Help, reached that threshold. Most years, the race narrows to two films early in the season: The Artist vs The Descendants; The Social Network vs The King’s Speech; The Hurt Locker vs Avatar. But this year there have been up to five films in contention throughout.

According to GoldDerby’s rankings, based on crowd-sourced expert predictions, Silver Linings Playbook led the race for Best Picture following the Toronto Film Festival last September. Les Misérables closed the gap, but was soon overtaken by Argo as it reached US screens in mid-October. Fellner’s film reclaimed the lead for a short while, until Lincoln shot out of the blocks in November, only for Argo to sprint past again in the final straight. “Zero Dark Thirty came very close to the lead spot on several occasions,” says O’Neil, “but it kept getting knocked back by rivals or controversy.”

Controversy also dogged the 2002 awards campaign for A Beautiful Mind, which won Best Picture despite misrepresenting the mental illness of mathematician John Nash, fabricating much of his biography, and smoothing over the cracks in his personal life. “But Hollywood was so hell-bent on giving [its director] Ron Howard an overdue Oscar that the film survived,” O’Neil explains.

“Kathryn Bigelow has her Oscar, so there’s no reason to compensate her. Zero Dark Thirty doesn’t endorse torture, but people don’t like that the torture scenes challenge America’s heroic self-image. We’re so appalled by what we see being done in the name of the USA that the movie takes a beating for it. It’s not fair – but the Oscars, like life, are not fair.”

The charge sheet: Fiction vs fact

Zero Dark Thirty

The depiction of torture as a method of procuring information in the search for Osama bin Laden has dominated headlines. But it is also accused of linguistic inaccuracies, showing Pakistanis speaking Arabic.

Lincoln

In the climactic vote on the 13th amendment, two lawmakers representing Connecticut are erroneously shown voting against the measure to end slavery, when in reality, they voted in favour.

Argo

Ben Affleck’s “true story” of a CIA operation to rescue hostages in Iran has a nail-biting climax in which the heroes are confronted at the departure gate as they try to leave. In reality, they left without a hitch.

 

*This article previously stated that the 2013 Best Picture nominees’ box office takings of more than £2bn was unprecedented. In fact, Best Picture nominees have collectively passed that mark in several previous years.

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