Three years after "The Hurt Locker" and its director, Kathryn Bigelow, won Oscars, the hunt for Osama bin Laden thriller "Zero Dark Thirty" is putting its director back into the awards-season conversation. How will academy voters respond? Time for another session with the Oscar 8-Ball, our finely calibrated forecasting tool that looks into the minds and hearts of academy members.
It is decidedly so: Because Bigelow and Boal lowered a cone of silence around their film during production and afterward, no one knew quite what to expect when "Zero Dark Thirty" began screening Thanksgiving weekend. Almost immediately, the movie began vacuuming up best picture accolades -- first the New York Film Critics Circle, then the National Board of Review, then just about everyone else, save for the Los Angeles Film Critics Assn. The awards and rave reviews have given the film a critic-fueled momentum not unlike that enjoyed by "The Social Network" two years ago. While that David Fincher film ultimately came up short on Oscar night, its nomination haul -- eight, including three eventual wins -- provides a useful comparison for Bigelow's movie. Nominations for picture, director, Mark Boal's original screenplay and lead actress Jessica Chastain will grab the headlines, with below-the-line recognition in editing, cinematography, sound editing and sound mixing possibly filling out the card. That'd be eight noms, equaling the take of Fincher's critics-group steamroller.
Concentrate and ask again: Now, one might argue that all the critics' prizes in the world won't help "Zero Dark Thirty" if the controversy surrounding its torture scenes overwhelms the craft of the movie. When you have U.S. Sens. John McCain, Dianne Feinstein and Carl Levin firing off a scathing letter to Sony Pictures chairman and chief executive Michael Lynton, you have publicity, yes, but also a potential problem. The film's journalistic, objective approach resists making judgments, seemingly determined to remain neutral in its dispassionate outlay of its fictionalized version of history. Choosing that course leaves its depiction of torture open to different reads. The 8-Ball concerns itself only with the politics of awards season, so we'll add only that the conversation regarding the film could well sway some academy members to vote for "Zero Dark Thirty" as a movie that speaks to current times, though what exactly it says will undoubtedly be the subject of much debate in the coming weeks.
Outlook not so good: As the CIA operative leading most of the "enhanced interrogations" depicted in the film, Australian actor Jason Clarke gives us all the contradictions of a complicated man doing bad things in the service of what he believes to be a larger good. Most years, he'd win a nomination, but the supporting actor field is simply too crowded to make room.