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 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 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 more than three 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.