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 December 3 the film was named Best Picture, and Bigelow Best Director. Within a week, it won at the National Board of Review Awards, where its star, Jessica Chastain, also won 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, Bigelow was unexpectedly omitted from the Best Director category. Now, the film is an outsider for Best Picture, and the odds have lengthened on Chastain taking home her first Oscar today.
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".
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 programme 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, 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 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, paints a positive portrait of the US intelligence services. Rather than trumpet his film's adherence to the historical record, 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 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."
He added: "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 US that the movie takes a beating for it. It's not fair - but the Oscars, like life, are not fair."
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 legislators 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 wrongly claims New Zealand diplomats refused to help them and 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.
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