“Zero Dark Thirty,” the best-reviewed film of 2012, has become an Oscar longshot because of a political backlash in Hollywood over its depiction of torture in the hunt for Osama Bin Laden.
Since early January, Kathryn Bigelow’s critically praised movie has sunk to fifth from third among likely best-picture winners at GoldDerby.com, which ranks award prospects. Actors Ed Asner and David Clennon urged academy voters to snub the Sony Corp. film. Author Naomi Wolf called Bigelow “torture’s handmaiden” and compared her to Nazi propagandist Leni Riefenstahl.
The outcry from Washington and influential industry voices has made “Zero Dark Thirty” a tough vote for left-leaning Hollywood. It’s led to a split between academy members disturbed by torture scenes that imply waterboarding and other harsh methods worked, and others who defend the filmmakers’ right to free speech and artistic freedom.
“The general political persuasion in Hollywood has more to do with it than any particular actors,” said former Republican U.S Senator Fred Thompson, who’s appeared in dozens of films and TV shows including “Law & Order.” “If they perceive that this movie somehow adopts the Bush narrative, that could affect the movie.”
Over eight days in December, “Zero Dark Thirty” was dubbed best picture by four groups, including the New York Film Critics Association, the National Board of Review and the Boston Film Critics Association. It was the top Oscar contender on the Metacritic site, which ranks films based on reviews.
Then the U.K.’s Guardian published an article accusing Bigelow, the only woman to win an Oscar for directing, of justifying torture. On Dec. 19, U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein, joined by John McCain and Carl Levin, asked Sony Pictures to consider “correcting” the suggestion torture helped the CIA find bin Laden because it was inaccurate.
The senators also asked the CIA about what officials told the filmmakers about interrogation tactics used during the administration of President George W. Bush. Feinstein and Levin declined to comment. McCain didn’t respond to requests.
Hollywood activists piled on. Asner, a former president of the Screen Actors Guild, told the New York Times he wanted to “condemn” the movie and said he and Martin Sheen planned to sign a letter by Clennon, who appeared in the TV series “thirtysomething,” urging voters to choose another movie.
Sheen later backed away, saying he opposed torture but didn’t want to attack Bigelow’s right to make the film her way. He and Asner didn’t respond to requests for comment.
“Its hopes for best picture seem to be, well, zero,” said Tom O’Neil, founder and editor of the GoldDerby.com. “The movie was unfairly blamed for showing us something we didn’t want to see, which was our nation misbehaving.”
Nominated for best picture, “Zero Dark Thirty” lost to “Argo,” Ben Affleck’s film about the rescue of U.S. embassy personnel from Iran three decades ago, at the Producers Guild, the Directors Guild and the Golden Globes. The film was winless at the British Academy of Film & Television Arts.
“People disengaged from ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ and embraced ‘Argo,’ said Sasha Stone, editor of Awards Daily, another website that tracks the Oscar race. ‘‘‘Argo’ doesn’t really ask anything of you, it just delivers entertainment.’’
Sony Pictures, based in Culver City, California, has put its marketing muscle behind the film with TV, radio and print ads touting five Oscar nominations, including best original screenplay for Mark Boal, best actress for Jessica Chastain, best editing and best sound editing. The movie was produced by Annapurna Pictures, run by Megan Ellison, daughter of the Oracle Corp. co-founder. The awards will be telecast from Los Angeles on Feb. 24 by Walt Disney Co.’s ABC.
‘‘We are doing everything we can to support what we believe is an extraordinary and important movie that will stand the test of time,’’ Steve Elzer, a Sony spokesman, said in an interview.
Studio Co-Chairman Amy Pascal defended the film in a statement, saying Bigelow would have been ‘‘irresponsible and inaccurate’’ to leave out torture scenes. A spokesman for Bigelow, who penned her own response in the L.A. Times, didn’t respond to a request for comment.
The film has garnered support beyond studio officials.
Former CIA director Leon Panetta has weighed in, saying in television interviews has said that harsh interrogation was useful. In a letter to the Senate, ‘‘Lincoln’’ screenwriter Tony Kushner, nominated for best adapted screenplay, Harvard Law professor Alan Dershowitz and 26 others compared the call for changes in the film to the McCarthy era. Kushner’s film, directed by Steven Spielberg, is also a best-picture nominee.
On his blog, documentary maker Michael Moore called the film ‘‘a disturbing, fantastically made movie. It will make you hate torture.’’
The chasm may have destroyed the chance for Bigelow and writer-producer Boal to win a second best-picture Oscar. They won for the 2009 Iraq War drama ‘‘The Hurt Locker,’’ with Bigelow winning best director and ending an 80-year monopoly by men.
Bigelow and Boal have maintained their film neither supports nor condemns the interrogation methods used. The goal, the have said, was to depict events accurately and let viewers draw their own conclusions.
In the film, an al Qaeda operative in the custody of U.S. troops is subjected to waterboarding, isolation in a small, dark box, beatings and sleep deprivation. His tormenters ultimately trick him into giving up the name of bin Laden’s courier, leaving open the question of whether torture led to the intelligence breakthrough.
Chastain, nominated for best actress, plays the relentless CIA agent Maya, based on an actual agent who worked on the hunt for bin Laden.
‘‘I only hope that academy members consider the implications of presenting a homicidal torturer as a beautiful, innocent, persistent and courageous heroine,’’ Clennon said. ‘‘Then I hope they feel the freedom to vote their consciences, rather than limiting themselves to considerations of aesthetic merit, divorced from morality.’’