The fall of Kathryn Bigelow's action thriller "Zero Dark Thirty," about the hunt for Osama bin Laden, aggravates me. Once the frontrunner, the ripped-from-CIA-dispatches drama, driven by the year's toughest heroine, single-minded spook Maya (Jessica Chastain), has apparently fizzled on the awards circuit.
The controversy about the "truthiness," to quote Stephen Colbert, of the film's depiction of recent history, and about whether it advocates torture, has done damage. A congressional inquiry? Oh, please!
Unlike a juicy sex scandal, this kind of political and intellectual controversy has a negative impact in the same way that criticisms of humanizing, rather than vilifying, Margaret Thatcher damaged last year's "The Iron Lady."
Many women -- but not the avid filmgoers in New York and Los Angeles -- are afraid to see "ZD30" or at least have shoved it down their must-see list behind "Les Misérables," "Argo," and "Silver Linings Playbook." Given how much movie tickets cost, and their few nights out, the vast majority of soccer moms and single women don't want to spend their discretionary dollars and date nights on "that waterboarding movie."
Bigelow, thanks to the controversy that has inspired a congressional inquiry, has lost the narrative thread she so carefully wove onscreen.
"Zero Dark Thirty" is already a success
Before we completely surrender to the notion that "ZD30" is dead in the water, remember its epic success. The academy has nominated the film for five Oscars, including best picture and best actress. According to Indiewire, the film has won 10 critics' associations best-picture awards and 14 nominations. Star Jessica Chastain won a Golden Globe and numerous other honors. It's also a financial success, having grossed $70 million domestically. Six weeks after it premiered, it's still No. 3 at the box office.
"Zero Dark Thirty" raises tough questions (and they're not multiple choice)
I resist entering the "torture" debate as defined by critics and defenders alike, because what elevated the film for me was that, like all of Bigelow's work, it did not tell me what to think. In her cover story in this week's Time magazine, Jessica Winter writes, "Like a white-on-white canvas, 'Zero Dark Thirty' has become a projection screen for the audience's perceptions and sympathies, taking on different colors and contours depending on what the viewer brings to it."
Unlike "Lincoln," which smoothed over the distant past and rallied emotions with an overbearing John Williams score, "ZD30" takes the biggest risk of all by inviting audience members to think and feel for themselves. It no more advocates torture, or "enhanced interrogation techniques," than a movie about Henry VIII condones the use of beheading in dealing with unwanted wives. Or than "Silver Linings Playbook" advocates that men with bipolar disorder should skip their meds and find health through a good woman and ballroom dancing.
Documentarian Michael Moore explains it all for you
Oscar-winning director Michael Moore ("Bowling for Columbine") defended Bigelow's embattled film in the "Huffington Post." And, as Winter explained in "Time," Moore saw what he wanted to see, in his case a movie that bashes George Bush and praises Barack Obama: "The main takeaway from 'Zero Dark Thirty': That good detective work can bring fruitful results -- and that torture is wrong."
And then Moore goes on a nontorture tangent: "'Zero Dark Thirty' -- a movie made by a woman (Kathryn Bigelow), produced by a woman (Megan Ellison), distributed by a woman (Amy Pascal, the co-chairman of Sony Pictures), and starring a woman (Jessica Chastain), is really about how an agency of mostly men are dismissive of a woman who is on the right path to finding bin Laden. Yes, guys, this is a movie about how we don't listen to women, how hard it is for them to have their voice heard even in these enlightened times. You could say this is a 21st century chick flick …"
Which controversy -- torture or misogyny -- trumps which?
When I asked my Oscarologist pal Tom O'Neil of GoldDerby.com on our regular podcast why, oh why, had Bigelow fallen after her early peak at the New York Film Critics Circle, he answered quickly, "Misogyny." I'm so tired of saying the M-word, I was happy to hear it from Tom's lips. According to an L.A. Times study earlier this year, academy voters are estimated to be 77 percent male and 94 percent white, and they have a median age of 62.
It's not a leap to suggest that Bigelow's dilemma is that, as the first woman to receive a best-director Oscar, she has a lot of brass returning to the trough so soon. Wasn't she satisfied?
It would be wrong to see Bigelow's trajectory as a problem unique to Hollywood. The degree to which the bold and accomplished director has come under fire and met increasing resistance after her Oscar win for "The Hurt Locker" is an example of the larger issue of gender stereotypes that Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg raised at the World Economic Forum in Davos last week. "As a woman becomes more successful, she is less liked," Sandberg said, "and as a man becomes more successful, he is more liked."
It's an irony that Chastain's CIA agent would have appreciated if she hadn't been so consumed with her primary directive: hunting Osama bin Laden.