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'Zero Dark Thirty's' sharp turn from Oscar glory

In the wake of heated controversy over the film's depiction of torture, 'Zero Dark Thirty's' creators and backers had their own debate on how best to respond.

February 19, 2013|By Steven Zeitchik and Nicole Sperling, Los Angeles Times
  • Jessica Chastain is nominated for the lead actress Oscar for her role in "Zero Dark Thirty."
Jessica Chastain is nominated for the lead actress Oscar for her role in… (Jonathan Olley / Columbia…)

After a screening of "Zero Dark Thirty" for Sony Pictures executives in September, studio co-chair Amy Pascal gathered the filmmakers in her office on the Culver City lot and uncorked bottles of Champagne.

Elation and confidence filled the air, recalled William Goldenberg, an editor on the film who was there to share a toast with a group that included director Kathryn Bigelow, screenwriter Mark Boal, financier Megan Ellison and line producer Colin Wilson. "The [executives] were really high on the movie," Goldenberg said. They said [star] Jessica [Chastain] was going to win the Oscar. They called it brilliant. It was a great day."

Two months later, "Zero Dark Thirty" won top prizes from the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Board of Review. "OK, folks, you can plan on something else for Oscar night ... 'Zero Dark Thirty' will win best picture," Richard Corliss wrote in Time.

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But the film's road to awards-season glory then took one of the sharpest turns in recent Oscar memory. Its wild ride offers a telling portrait of the 21st-century news cycle and how it can play havoc with a studio's carefully laid campaign.

Beginning with newspaper op-eds in early December — and continuing when U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) released a letter excoriating the movie for its depiction of torture — "Zero Dark" became the subject of a relentless attack from politicians and pundits. Critics said the film incorrectly asserted that torture played a role in the capture of Osama bin Laden.

The firestorm hit even before the film opened nationwide--and just as Oscar voters were marking their nomination ballots.

Sony and the filmmakers faced a dilemma, according to a series of recent interviews: Should they respond forcefully to the criticism and attempt to wrest control of the narrative? Or remain relatively quiet and try not to stoke the flames?

Sony opted for the latter, partly concerned that fanning the flames would keep moviegoers away. And while the gambit paid off — the movie has grossed $85 million in the U.S. — the strategy appears to have hurt the film on the awards front. En route to Sunday's Oscars, "Zero Dark" has been nearly shut out of awards — save for a Golden Globe and a Writers Guild prize — to some degree, voters say, because of the torture controversy.

"All of us agreed that the most important thing was to ensure the commercial success of the motion picture, and if that meant a momentary ding, that was part of the price of being at the party," Boal said in a recent interview. "In retrospect, I might do it again differently. But we don't have that luxury in life."

As "Zero Dark" opened in a few theaters in New York and Los Angeles on Dec. 19, Feinstein confronted Sony Entertainment Chief Executive Michael Lynton about her displeasure with the way the film depicted torture. Her feeling, as she also put in a letter to Lynton that was also signed by Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), was that the movie was "grossly inaccurate."

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"The filmmakers and your production studio are perpetuating the myth that torture is effective," the letter said. "You have a social and moral obligation to get the facts straight." The missive grabbed headlines for days. She wanted the studio to acknowledge that elements were fictionalized, but Lynton and the studio held its ground.

Still, the condemnation stuck in the craw of the filmmakers, who believed they were caught up in a larger Washington drama; Feinstein's intelligence committee had just approved a classified report criticizing CIA interrogations. "The [lawmakers] hijacked the marketing of the film with what, to my mind, was an intellectually dishonest publicity ploy," Boal said.

Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.), meanwhile, questioned whether the Obama administration had inappropriately cooperated with the filmmakers. Acting CIA Chief Michael Morell chastised "Zero Dark" for not fairly representing his agency. Steve Coll, who wrote the Bin Laden manhunt book "Ghost Wars," called out the film on accuracy grounds.

The filmmakers, who maintained that their movie takes no explicit position on torture, wanted to reply, and expressed that in a series of meetings with Sony and its awards consultants, according to a person familiar with the discussions who was not allowed to speak about them publicly.

But the studio was concerned that a prolonged debate could deter moviegoers from coming out to see the film--would people want to see a movie if they were constantly being reminded by news headlines that it featured scenes of torture. They pleaded for silence until the Jan. 11 national release, hoping the furor would die down, the person familiar with the talks said. (Neither Bigelow nor Sony executives would speak on the record for this story.)

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