When news broke that the probe -- led by Senators Dianne Feinstein, Carl Levin and John McCain -- was put to bed just a day after the Oscars, some of us were scratching our heads. Then later in the day Feinstein's camp issued a statement indicating the probe ended weeks ago after the Senator received the CIA's response to her initial inquiry about its interaction with the filmmakers of "Zero Dark."
Still, some contend there is a connection between the Oscar race and the Senate's concern with the film -- about the post-9/11 hunt for Osama bin Laden and its depiction of U.S. torture tactics. The Kathryn Bigelow-directed feature, written by Mark Boal, failed win any major Academy Awards in spite of its glowing reviews and a slew of other movie awards -- many of which were bestowed by critics groups.
"The whole uproar was just a case of slapping the messenger for having the nerve to portray the U.S. in a non-heroic role," says Gold Derby editor Tom O'Neil, a longtime observer of Oscar campaigns.
The non-heroism he is referring to: scenes that depict American officials water-boarding and using other torture methods. The Senate felt compelled to respond because "it was humiliating for Americans to see this being done in our name in this film," O'Neil theorizes.
"If I were a conspiracy theorist I would 100 percent say this was done to hurt the film's Oscar prospects," says Deadline awards columnist Pete Hammond. "On the other hand, it is hard to believe senators like Dianne Feinstein and John McCain would be susceptible to Oscar campaign tactics or approachable by rivals out to hurt 'Zero Dark.'"
Awards campaigning has gotten much more intense in recent years, and rivals are not beyond resorting to dirty tricks. "Oscar races are ironically now increasingly similar to the tactics used in political campaigns," Hammond says, referring the many screening and swanky parties for Academy members. O'Neil adds, "Whisper campaigns behind movies are legendary but unprovable."
Both agree: campaign strategists pulling for competing films in this year's Oscar race likely fanned the flames of the "Zero Dark" Senate controversy. "I know everyone is picturing Harvey Weinstein calling Dianne Feinstein. It's so ridiculous the whole thing, [but] there are take downs going on all the time," O'Neil contends, adding that he and fellow bloggers receive calls all the time from Oscar campaigners who are "trashing their rivals."
Hammond points to the "infamous" crusade against 2001's "A Beautiful Mind" -- which managed to survive suspected whisper campaigns with four Oscar wins. Since then, Hammond says campaigning has gone underground, "But it doesn't mean rivals have gone silent. They just casually 'remind' press about negative things regarding another movie in order to cast a dark shadow on said film."
Whatever was behind the Senate's decision to investigate "Zero Dark," it appears to have created a perfect storm that left the film dry at this year's award's show. (Bigelow wasn't even nominated for Best Director and the film only nabbed a single statuette, for sound editing.)
"Hollywood didn't end up embarrassing Washington by heaping awards on this movie that accuses the U.S. of scurrilous conduct during wartime," says O'Neil.
Not so coincidentally, some have pointed out, "Argo" -- which portrays the U.S. CIA as the good guys -- got much of the Oscar glory on Sunday.
Watch 'Zero Dark Thirty' Teaser Trailer:
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