That’s just one of the questions swirling around what observers agree has been the most political Academy Award season in recent memory — not just the movies themselves, but the tactics used to undermine their legitimacy for cinema’s top prize.
In early December, “Zero Dark Thirty,” Kathryn Bigelow’s taut, masterfully executed thriller about the hunt for Osama bin Laden, looked like an unassailable Oscar front-runner, winning a clutch of glowing reviews and awards that usually augur success on Oscar night. But just as quickly and forcefully, an aggressive game of pushback began, with Washington playing an improbably prominent role.
It’s not at all clear that politics kept Bigelow from receiving her second Oscar nomination for best director. The shocking snub more likely had to do with the vagaries of electronic voting, the fact that nine best picture directors won’t go into five best director slots — plus old-fashioned sexism.
But it’s inarguable that, in an exceptionally tight race for best picture, the proxy attacks on “Zero Dark Thirty” — and its parent studio’s anemic response — didn’t help. The result is that the best reviewed, most-award-winning movie of 2012 will probably be denied a best picture Oscar at the ceremony Sunday. (In more cheering news, “Zero Dark Thirty” screenwriter Mark Boal and editors Dylan Tichenor and William Goldenberg are strong contenders in their categories.)
For decades, Academy Awards campaigns have been compared to their political counterparts as filmmakers press the flesh, caffeinated consultants staff up their war rooms, studios launch stealth attempts to ding the opposition, academy voters are bombarded with ads, and, at a time when tens of millions of dollars are often spent to win a coveted statuette, everyone calls for serious campaign finance reform.
But this year’s race for the Oscar has been politicized to an unusual degree, with campaigns that usually would be confined to the Hollywood hustings arriving in Washington for noisy, well-publicized whistle stops. After premiering at festivals in Telluride and Toronto last year, Ben Affleck’s “Argo” made its Washington debut in October, when Affleck showed the film at the Canadian Embassy. Several weeks later, Steven Spielberg and Daniel Day-Lewis were on hand for a bipartisan screening of “Lincoln” — not long before Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and Carl Levin, D-Mich., fired off a letter to Sony Pictures Entertainment chairman and chief executive Michael Lynton criticizing “Zero Dark Thirty” for its depiction of torture.
The Venn diagram of Hollywood and Washington achieved perfect consonance on Jan. 13, when former president and surrogate extraordinaire Bill Clinton introduced “Lincoln” at the Golden Globes ceremony.
Not to be outdone, the marquee names of “Silver Linings Playbook” came to Washington this month, when director David Russell and star Bradley Cooper — who plays the film’s bipolar protagonist — met with Vice President Joe Biden to discuss mental-health policy. Quvenzhane Wallis, the pint-size Oscar nominee from the indie “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” stopped by the White House, to kibitz with first fan Michelle Obama. On Saturday, newly minted Secretary of State John Kerry even tweeted good luck to “Argo” on Oscar night.
Granted, the District of Columbia connection makes a certain degree of sense, when three of the nine best picture nominees had Washington-centric themes — and even the mental-health issues that “Silver Linings Playbook” highlights took on new urgency after the mass shootings in Newtown, Conn. But also there’s no doubt that Washington events offered these movies valuable visibility within an exceptionally competitive Oscar race.
As Hollywood Reporter awards analyst Scott Feinberg told me, “If there isn’t a clear front-runner, studio awards strategists [will] bring more people into their strategy meetings and become more open to different kinds of ideas, because they need to find some way to separate themselves from the pack. Seeking a political endorsement can become one of them.” (The films’ Oscar blitzes also coincide with their more general marketing rollouts; in the case of “Argo,” its triumphant awards season has coincided perfectly with its availability on DVD and video-on-demand.)
With the political class weighing in on this year’s nominees, negative campaigning has threatened to approach Lee Atwater proportions, no doubt because of a media universe in which the thinnest shred of speculation is amplified by Oscar bloggers, then multiplied via Twitter, Facebook and beyond. And no other film has been mangled by the Washington spin machine as much as “Zero Dark Thirty.”
When it opened in December — in New York and Los Angeles — the timely, hotly anticipated drama seemed poised to take honors for best picture, not to mention earn Bigelow a second Oscar nomination (she won in 2010 for “The Hurt Locker”). But even before its release, the film endured its share of mud-slinging, when Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., fulminated against what he predicted would be a Hollywood-backed hagiography of President Barack Obama.
Once “Zero Dark Thirty” arrived on-screen, it was clear that Bigelow and screenwriter Boal never intended their film to be a political tract. But no sooner had they dodged King’s fusillade than they ran straight into another, this time in the form of criticism that “Zero Dark Thirty” suggested that torture was justified and maybe even essential in the intelligence hunt for bin Laden.
Almost immediately, the Washington press corps started to weigh in, joined soon thereafter by politicians, pundits and anti-torture activists who saw a prime opportunity for “earned media” by attacking the movie, even if in some cases they hadn’t seen it. The 24-7 news cycle — bereft of fodder after the presidential election — pivoted gratefully to another horse race. And “Zero Dark Thirty” embarked on the long, strange metamorphosis from movie to news peg that stakeholders could exploit for any number of agendas.
The timing of “Zero Dark Thirty” couldn’t have dovetailed more neatly with Feinstein’s release of the Senate intelligence committee’s classified 6,000 page report on the post-9/11 detainee program — which itself became a piece of the confirmation hearings of CIA director nominee John Brennan. “Zero Dark Thirty’s” competitors may not have started the torture arguments that the film became a part of, but they certainly didn’t bemoan them. Meanwhile, we were reminded that Hollywood isn’t the only town that runs on publicity, as anyone who has stood between an ambitious politician and a TV camera surely has the scars to prove.
The takedown of “Zero Dark Thirty” has been an unedifying spectacle, proving that PR-savvy Washington can teach even Hollywood’s most skilled knife fighters a thing or two about going on the offensive. But Sony did itself no favors in keeping the film out of Washington for nearly four weeks while the pundits and pols controlled the narrative. Once “Zero Dark Thirty” finally opened here, in January, its best-performing theaters nationwide were in Northern Virginia and the District — no surprise considering the film’s natural audience of local military and intelligence personnel. We can only speculate how much better the film might have done — commercially and politically — had it opened the same day in Washington as it did in New York and Los Angeles, a strategy that helped propel “Lincoln” to an astonishing $200 million at the box office.
Then again, “Zero Dark Thirty” hasn’t done badly for itself, as it verges on breaking $100 million at the box office. If Sony didn’t have a rapid-response operation in place to answer the attacks out of Washington, that clearly hasn’t mattered to the vast majority of filmgoers in red, blue and purple America who couldn’t care less what the politicians they revile think of a movie.
And remember: Four years may be a lifetime in politics, but it’s also how long it can take to bring a film from script to screen. With an Oscar already in hand and considerable box office capital in her war chest, Kathryn Bigelow is less like John Kerry after 2004 than Hillary Clinton after 2008: defeated in the short term, perhaps, but supremely well positioned for her next run.