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. 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 Oscar night.