Os­car un­der the in­flu­ence of Washington

The Washington Post Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - BY ANN HOR­NA­DAY

Will “Zero Dark Thirty” be Swift-boated out of an Os­car?

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-award­win­ning 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. A few weeks later, Steven Spiel­berg and Daniel Day-Lewis were on hand for a bi­par­ti­san screen­ing of “Lin­coln” — not long be­fore U. S. Sens. John McCain, Dianne Fe­in­stein and Carl Levin 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 O. Rus­sell and star Bradley Cooper — who plays the film’s bipo­lar pro­tag­o­nist — met with Vice Pres­i­dent 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

No other film has been man­gled by the Washington spin ma­chine as much as “Zero Dark Thirty.”

Os­car night.

Granted, the Washington con­nec­tion makes a cer­tain de­gree of sense, when three of the nine best pic­ture nom­i­nees had D.C.-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. Both “Lin­coln” and “Argo” have suf­fered their un­fair share of abuse in re­cent days. But 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 T. King (R-N.Y.) ful­mi­nated against what he pre­dicted would be a Hol­ly­wood-backed ha­giog­ra­phy of Pres­i­dent 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 an­titor­ture 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 con­ve­nient 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 in the­aters. 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.

Kathryn Bigelow

ALEX WONG/GETTY IM­AGES

ABOVE: Qu­ven­zhane Wal­lis, child star of “Beasts of the South­ern Wild,” has the at­ten­tion of, from left, cast mem­ber Dwight Henry; Rachel Goslins, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Pres­i­dent’s Com­mit­tee on the Arts and the Hu­man­i­ties; and first lady Michelle Obama dur­ing a re­cent stu­dent work­shop at the White House.

JONATHAN OL­LEY/COLUMBIA PIC­TURES

RIGHT: Jes­sica Chas­tain plays a mem­ber of an elite team of in­tel­li­gence and mil­i­tary op­er­a­tives who track down Osama bin Laden in the well­re­viewed but con­tro­ver­sial “Zero Dark Thirty.”

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