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.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Christopher Eccleston (centre) plays an ex-policeman in this cliché-riddled thriller

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey looks very serious as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

TV This TV review contains spoilers
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Wiz Khalifa performs on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park in Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment
Festival-goers soak up the atmosphere at Glastonbury

music

Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars creator George Lucas

film

Arts and Entertainment

music

Arts and Entertainment
A shot from the forthcoming Fast and Furious 7

film

Arts and Entertainment
The new-look Top of the Pops could see Fearne Cotton returns as a host alongside Dermot O'Leary

TV

Arts and Entertainment
The leader of the Church of Scientology David Miscavige

TV

Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Arts and Entertainment
Could Ed Sheeran conquer the Seven Kingdoms? He could easily pass for a Greyjoy like Alfie Allen's character (right)

tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros

Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce, Boris Johnson, Putin, Nigel Farage, Russell Brand and Andy Murray all get the Spitting Image treatment from Newzoids
tvReview: The sketches need to be very short and very sharp as puppets are not intrinsically funny
Arts and Entertainment
Despite the controversy it caused, Mile Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball' video won multiple awards
musicPoll reveals over 70% of the British public believe sexually explicit music videos should get ratings
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister and Ian Beattie as Meryn Trant in the fifth season of Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment

book review
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

    Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
    Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

    Aviation history is littered with grand failures

    But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

    Fortress Europe?

    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
    Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

    Never mind what you're wearing

    It's what you're reclining on that matters
    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence