Why 'Zero Dark Thirty' Crashed Just Outside the Compound

That Argo, an almost universally well-reviewed film, is now an Oscar front-runner isn't exactly a surprise, but its late-season trouncing of another film certainly is. What happened to Zero Dark Thirty?

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At last night's SAG Awards ceremony, Ben Affleck's Argo was given the Best Cast prize, all but ensuring, in many people's minds, that the film will win the Best Picture trophy at the Oscars next month. The last SAG award of the night is usually a good predictor of that Oscar category — they've matched up six out of the last ten times. That Argo, an almost universally well-reviewed film, is getting this kind of awards treatment isn't exactly a surprise, but its late-season trouncing of another film certainly is. Meaning, what happened to Zero Dark Thirty?

Earlier this month, the conventional wisdom was that Kathryn Bigelow's hunt-for-Osama bin Laden film was the one to beat. Zero Dark was considerably ahead in the awards tally, taking top prizes from the National Board of Review and the New York Film Critics Circle, among others. The film was perhaps even better reviewed than Argo, and had the added benefit of being a truly serious film about contemporary geopolitics. Argo is similarly about the Middle East and full of shaky-cam intrigue, but it's a decidedly lighter film, with long comedy sequences and genial performances by cozily likable actors. It's serious, but Zero Dark Thirty is more intense, newsier, and undeniably grim. It's grownup and respectable, in other words. Where Argo is entertainment, Zero Dark is enrichment.

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.

Of course Ben Affleck didn't end up receiving his much-anticipated Best Director nomination, so it might be that the Academy is not as up on the movie as we think. But Affleck's snub could easily spur voters, especially the actors, who make up the Academy's largest bloc, to cast their ballots for the larger film, as a consolation prize to the increasingly beloved, hard-working actor-turned-director. And, sure, Harvey Weinstein could also pull a February surprise and convince enough voters to go for easy feel-good-ness and give top honors to his Silver Linings. That's happened before and it might again if voters are feeling geopolitical fatigue and want to reward a wistful indie comedy that made them happy. Or there's always Lincoln! We can't fully discount Lincoln.

Today's point, though, is that Zero Dark Thirty, once the clear frontrunner in a fairly crowded year, has fallen considerably behind. Bigelow and company don't seem quite as willing to campaign as the Argo and Silver Linings crew, but they still have time. Final votes are due on February 19, meaning there are a little more than three weeks before final arguments have to be made. We'd like to see the film wrangle a win — it's a more complex and more intellectually rewarding film than Argo (which is, again, quite good), and certainly seems to have struck a chord with people, in varying ways. That kind of controversy should not be viewed as a mark of in-distinction. Really, it means that Bigelow and company were that much more successful in their efforts. Which were, y'know, to stoke a conversation about this complicated recent event. In a more just Oscar world, a film would be rewarded for teasing out those questions. But, that's just not the way things work.

The Oscars will likely go for a Middle East story that ends on a definitively happy note. With Americans and their collaborators (the short-changed Canadians) looking like heroes, including two Hollywood film producers. It's the stuff of Oscar dreams. As is, potentially, the well-acted romantic comedy with some "difficult" subject matter that's handled frankly enough to earn potential Best Picture status, but also cavalierly enough to actually win. (No one really wants to talk about bipolar disorder that can't be cured with dance competitions.) But that terrorism drama that shows Americans at their worst (and best, in some respects) and ends with a big shadowy sigh? Yeah, maybe we were crazy to think that ever had a chance.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.