Who’s up for another Oscar best picture twist?

If “Zero Dark Thirty,” a major critical favorite in December before the torture controversy ran it aground, is to have a comeback story, it might be starting now. 

Days after Michael Moore’s lengthy defense of the pic, a New York Times piece today indicated that Martin Sheen’s criticism of the film was a misunderstanding:

Mr. Sheen said that through his own mistake, the
actors David Clennon and Ed Asner had included Mr. Sheen in their opposition to
what they saw as the film’s tolerance of torture. “It’s my own fault,”
said Mr. Sheen, who explained that he had agreed to a statement about
the film without fully understanding that it would condemn the movie,
rather than simply condemning torture. …

While Clennon and Asner are standing by their opinion that the movie encourages torture, the Times piece reiterates they are not telling people to avoid the movie (in effect blessing them to form their own opinion).

This follows last week’s piece that Moore published on Facebook and in Time supporting “Zero,” culminating with the statement, ” ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ is a disturbing, fantastically-made movie. It will make you hate torture.”

Again, this has been my argument.

… “Zero Dark Thirty” shows the ugliness of torture, raises enormous
questions about its morality and efficacy, and ultimately tells a story
where the key United States operatives, under the direction of the
president, abandon it. (Does the fact that torture is repellent in the
movie not constitute an argument against it at all?) However many
audience members think the film endorses torture, I think that’s on
them, not on “Zero.”

I would also note that at this point, amid all the conversation about
the perceived impact of “Zero” on the torture debate, I haven’t seen it
go to the next step. I haven’t seen any conversation where anyone uses
it as a launching pad to argue for bringing torture back. That’s not to
say I haven’t simply missed that, so if I have, let me know. But for
example, relative to the furious debate on gun control in this country,
the, “Go, torture, go!” side seems awfully quiet to me.  That strikes me
as extraordinarily significant. Keep in mind that the people who
actually make policy are too inside to be influenced by a movie. For
those of us, like myself, who are against torture, we should be so lucky
if this is the biggest ammunition the pro-torture side has.   

There seems to be little justification for people to treat “Zero” as
reactionary modern-day propaganda, as if Bigelow were Leni Riefenstahl
and “Zero” is “Triumph of the Will.” The potential of the film to
rejuvenate pro-torture arguments seems greatly overstated – and should
that rejuvenation occur, it’s not going to live or die with what people
thought of “Zero Dark Thirty.” And nothing stretches credibility more
than the idea that Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal intended to make a
pro-torture movie.  …

Is it too little, too late for a “Zero Dark Thirty” recovery in the best picture race? We’re still nine days before final Oscar voting begins and nearly three weeks from it ending.  “Argo” went from its nadir on Oscar nominations day Jan. 10 to a revival that very weekend with wins at the Broadcast Film Critics Assn. and the Golden Globes, and ultimately sole or shared frontrunner status 2 1/2 weeks later. Second thoughts propelled “Argo” into the forefront of the conversation, but if the opposition to “Zero” finally diminishes, especially within the Hollywood community, there might be the opportunity for third thoughts.

Now, if that’s not enough for “Zero” to bounce all the way back to the top, it could nevertheless siphon enough support away from “Argo” to boost the grand prize chances of “Lincoln.” There’s hardly any doubt that “Argo” has benefited to at least some extent from the idea that “Zero” wasn’t a politically palatable movie to vote for, such was the abrupt halt in the awards run of “Zero” weeks ago.  Pair that with any “Argo” fatigue or feeling that director Ben Affleck has been amply compensated by his Oscar directing omission, and you have a potential difference-making flip-flop of “Zero” and “Argo” that could easily boost a bystander like “Lincoln,” which after all still has more Oscar nominations than anything else.

The Directors Guild Award voting, which began Jan. 10 and concludes Friday (a day before the awards ceremony Saturday), might signify nothing. But it certainly holds the tantailzing possiblity — for those who want to see this wild Oscar race get even wilder — that someone besides Affleck will win, the “Argo” hot streak will come to an end, and we’ll firmly have multiple legitimate contenders for best picture at the Oscars. 

So much with the Academy Awards depends on timing; a “Zero” twist could underscore that emphatically.