This dark gravitas elevated ZD30 above other Oscar competitors too, from the way less hokey than it could have been but still kinda hokey Lincoln to the cute but ultimately rather small and slight Silver Linings Playbook. Zero Dark's lead actress Jessica Chastain seemed destined for Oscar glory herself, winning more awards than her main competitor, Silver Linings' Jennifer Lawrence, and generally being viewed as the deserving heir apparent to an older generation of stately talent — your Streeps, your Langes, your Benings. Just a few weeks ago, Zero Dark Thirty had all that going for it! But then, Argo won a Golden Globe and the SAG (and the Producers Guild award), and, adding insult to injury, Lawrence snatched the prize from Chastain at the SAGs. What's going on? Well, the truth is, it has probably been over for Zero Dark for a while now.
It turns out, the film was just too controversial. With pundits and bloggers debating Zero Dark's stance on torture — does it make a correlation between "enhanced interrogation" and the discovery of bin Laden, or is it simply realistically depicting something that did happen somewhere, at some point? — the praise for the film's artistic merits began to get lost. People either forgot that they liked the movie on technical grounds or simply were afraid to say it, at risk of wading into the heated political debate and being excoriated for liking a problematic movie. It became significantly less trendy to like Zero Dark Thirty in the weeks leading up to the Golden Globes, and the film has suffered because of it. No one is turning tail and saying that it's a bad film, it's just become something vaguely taboo. You can like it, but not too much.
MSNBC's pillorying or not, the reality is that the "difficult" nature of Zero Dark Thirty was always going to be a problem come Oscar time. Unlike various critics groups, the Academy is often not a fan of ambiguity or ambivalence. Instead, voters tend to opt for movies like The King's Speech over moodier, murkier fare like Black Swan or The Social Network. Sure they gave the Best Picture award to Bigelow's last picture, The Hurt Locker, back in 2009, but that was a win for technically expert filmmaking. Though it doesn't, in our opinion, make any distinct political declarations, Zero Dark is a much more thematically urgent, button-pushing film than Hurt Locker. Argo, with vaguely similar themes and motifs, is a lot more easily digested, and is thus likely to better satisfy the Academy. Plus, when Argo isn't skulking around Iran, it's in sunny Hollywood, offering a gentle parody of the industry before ultimately celebrating its valor. That's something that the Academy, especially the older members, will find hard to resist. Last year they gave the top prize to the showbiz love letter The Artist. This year it seems they're going to give it to the movie that shows the industry doing noble work for a greater good. Everyone will feel good about what they do for a living, and some town favorites like George Clooney and Ben Affleck and Alan Arkin will get recognized in the process. It's a good win.