Politics, the media and Oscar: pure torture

Oscar nominees shift from high gear into turbo drive

Final voting for the 85th annual Academy Awards officially begins today, which means nominees shift from high gear into turbo drive. This “exciting” time can be stressful, as folks work the kudos circuit, promote their films and toil on their next projects.

There’s an additional hurdle: mudslinging. But you don’t typically see lawmakers joining in — at least you didn’t before this year.

One-third of the best pic contenders are overtly political, opening the door for the U.S. government to join in the Oscar race.

Steven Spielberg and his team screened “Lincoln” for the Senate and White House; Bill Clinton’s appearance on behalf of the film at the Golden Globes brought celeb endorsement to a new level. (Julia Roberts’ party for Javier Bardem-in-“Biutiful” pales in comparison).

Ben Affleck of “Argo” testified before Congress in December about security in the Congo, and Raw News Media in January started an online petition to get him to run for the Senate. Last week, Bradley Cooper of “Silver Linings Playbook” appeared at a press conference in D.C. to call for ending the stigma on mental illness.

But those are positive overlaps between Washington and Hollywood.

The negative intersections are the attacks on the depiction of fracking in “Promised Land” and, worse, the government’s notification to Mark Boal and Kathryn Bigelow that they may be called before a Senate Investigation Committee hearing into “Zero Dark Thirty” and its depiction of torture. No date is set, but they were told they’ll be given short notice before being asked to testify.

“Zero Dark Thirty” is the first pic to be singled out for D.C. investigation since the blacklist era more than 60 years ago.

The horror of the HUAC blacklist is not just that it occurred but that people allowed it to continue for so long. The “Zero” saga is a modern variation of a blacklist: It’s one of many smear campaigns that spread like wildfire in a digital world and that the mainstream media then picks up but never follows through on the outcome.

“Zero” has been pummelled on the Potomac ever since Variety announced the project in 2010. First, D.C. investigated whether there had been a security breach in Boal and Bigelow’s CIA conversations. That was followed by a federal suit during filming, and political accusations of a pro-Obama slant for the unseen film. No evidence ever emerged to back up these claims, and all quietly faded away.

After “Zero” started winning awards, pundits suddenly screamed that it promoted torture, though they later admitted they hadn’t seen the film. And then, as Peter Bart pointed out in his Feb. 4 column in Variety, senators Dianne Feinstein, John McCain and Carl Levin sent a letter to Michael Lynton at Sony basically saying, “The film is wrong. You need to tell people it’s fictional.”

Uh-huh. It’s a film, folks.

Getting far less media attention is the reaction of the film’s supporters. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta (former director of the CIA) recently said “Zero” gets the facts right. Another former CIA director, Michael Hayden, also spoke on its behalf.

Why did this film raise such a fuss? Probably because it’s so resonant. (The “Promised Land” faux scandal died quickly.) One also gets the feeling the film got caught in a tug of war between the Senate and the CIA over the torture of prisoners. Or were the D.C. folks chatting with the film’s rivals?

D.C. has a lot in common with Hollywood. In both worlds, honchos plant leaks, then act shocked when the leaks are reported. Both are about marketing, image and spin. And, crucially, both are filled with people eager to take credit for success and to avoid taking the blame for failure.

At the Feb. 4 Oscar nominees luncheon, there was a silent protest outside the BevHilton from anti-torture activists. (Another reminder that a reputation, even if refuted, is hard to shake.) Standing in the lobby, Boal was approached by a man who enthused, “Sorry to interrupt, but that was the most anti-torture film I’ve ever seen. I don’t know what the fuck people are talking about!”

Asked about torture, Boal deadpanned, “Let’s not make that my career-defining moment.” Then he added, “I wanted to tell the story about how they found bin Laden. I didn’t invent the torture. If anything, I underplayed it. I don’t need to keep saying I got it right. I know I got it right.”

Even if the Senate hearing is cancelled — and one profoundly hopes that it is — the nastiness could discourage filmmakers from tackling hot-button topics. On the other hand, the film is doing surprisingly well for a tough look at current events, with five Oscar noms, $78.6 million at the domestic box office and overseas B.O. of $12.8 million in only eight territories.

Despite the pressures, Boal smiled last week and said, “I feel pretty blessed with this film.” Sony has domestic, Universal overseas. Speaking of Sony, he said, “This is a huge global conglomerate. And they released this movie! In theaters! And put their name on it! There are not a lot of executives who would have done that.”

I’ve always been careful during awards season to never spotlight any one nominee, in the interest of fairness. But this is an exceptional case because of the senators’ letter and the threatened Senate hearing. Such things have never happened in my 30 years at Variety. For the sake of Hollywood and the country, let’s hope they never happen again.

Unfortunately, there is no end in sight to the spread of misinformation in a digital world, with no evidence, and no subsequent clarifications, retractions or accountability. To paraphrase Joseph Nye Welch’s question to the HUAC committee, have you people no sense of decency?

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