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'Zero Dark Thirty': Too cool or too controversial for Oscars?
Despite winning early honors from critics, the movie fails to win traction
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - 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 U.S. 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 Oscars.
Despite winning early honors 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 Dave Karger, chief correspondent for
"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
Early signs of trouble for "Zero Dark Thirty" came in mid-December when U.S.
Senators Dianne Feinstein, John McCain and Carl Levin sent a letter to Sony
They called the film "grossly inaccurate and misleading" for suggesting
torture helped the United States track the al Qaida leader to a Pakistan
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
Three weeks later, Bigelow was omitted from the Oscar's Best Director short
list, 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
"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
"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
Pete Hammond, awards columnist at entertainment industry website
Deadline.com, said the political attacks on the film certainly had an impact
before "Zero Dark Thirty" was released in U.S. movie theaters nationwide in late
"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
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By late January, Bigelow and Boal were making speeches, getting magazine
profiles, and writing opinion pieces in which they directed critics to the U.S.
officials who sanctioned, or turned a blind eye, to harsh interrogation
Victims of the September 11, 2001, attacks ordered by bin Laden voiced their
support, as did departing U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, who called it a
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 Reuters.
Despite the furor 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 percent
positive rating. Oscar Best Picture favorites "Lincoln" and "Argo" score 89 percent and 96
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.
Boal won the Writers Guild of America trophy for Best Original Screenplay
last weekend, and is a strong contender for the Oscar in that category on
Jessica Chastain is thought to have
a good chance at taking home the Best Actress prize for her performance as the
feisty young CIA agent credited with tracking down bin Laden in the face of
skepticism from her bosses.
"Jessica Chastain is a good place to put your 'Zero Dark Thirty' vote if you
are wounded by the backlash against the film and want to express your support
some place," said Tom O'Neil, of awards website Goldderby.com.
However, the film, which is being promoted as the "most-talked about movie of
the year," is seen as a long shot.
"Controversial movies suffer with Academy voters. I think 'Zero Dark Thirty'
will have a tough time winning Best Picture because I think the Academy is going
to go with less controversial choices," Rotten Tomatoes editor in chief Matt
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it was a great movie... and did any of these activists groups have family members die in 9/11? should we have given the terriorst cupcakes and coffee? Put them up in a fancy hotel oh if you seen the movie they blew up the hotel did they not...they will kill an american with out blinking an eye....wake up...hope it get the credit it deserves on Sunday!!!
CORRECTION: The article says the directors are nominated "by about 5,800 movie industry professionals who make up the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences."
This is wrong -- only the directors nominate directors. Everyone (the 5800) nominates Best Picture.
The difference is two-fold: You are nominated by your peers (who supposedly know what it takes to accomplish the end product) and ONLY by your peers -- you may have support elsewhere, but that won't help you get nominated unless your peers like your work (or at least vote for you).
It's not a matter of 'too cool' or 'too controversial', it's just not a good movie. To illustrate that, I saw entire 30-second previews that made it look like an action-packed movie. But most of those clips came from the raid scene, which ... isn't very exciting. Again, already know what happens. If the marketing department has to trick people into going, it's not a good movie. There was nothing breathtaking about any aspect of this film, and I never intend to watch another frame of it.
Sorry, it was O.K., and reasonably enjoyable, but really not great filmmaking. You saw Maya focus in on her theory, and that was the entire plot. I saw the whole movie coming a mile away (and I don't mean UBL being shot to death...the movie uses UBL, and not OBL when referring to bin Laden, if you have not seen it).
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