Why Kathryn Bigelow's Oscar Snub Is a Symptom of a Larger Problem in Film Criticism

This undated publicity photo released by Columbia Pictures Industries, Inc. shows Jessica Chastain, as Maya, a member of the
This undated publicity photo released by Columbia Pictures Industries, Inc. shows Jessica Chastain, as Maya, a member of the elite team of spies and military operatives stationed in a covert base overseas, who secretly devoted themselves to finding Osama Bin Laden in Columbia Pictures' new thriller, "Zero Dark Thirty," directed by Kathryn Bigelow. Chastain received an Academy Award nomination for best actress for her portrayal of the young, obsessed CIA operative driving the search. (AP Photo/Columbia Pictures Industries, Inc., Jonathan Olley)

In the broad scheme of things, the only Oscar snub that qualifies as an outrage is the omission of Kathryn Bigelow for Best Director.  Not because it's a bigger slight than snubbing Ben Affleck or Samuel L. Jackson or the like, but because her omission is clearly the result of the kind of smear campaign against the film that has made politics next-to-impossible for the last decade or so.  It's the same kind of baseless campaign that prevented Susan Rice from being nominated for Secretary of State, it's the same mud-slinging that caused Obama to (wrongly) dismiss Van Jones early in his term, thus providing the GOP their first scalp.  And to add insult to injury, Bigelow has been deemed wholly responsible by those who wrongly believe that Zero Dark Thirty (review) endorses torture, leaving screenwriter Mark Boal (who got a nomination) off the hook.  If this kind of stuff happens every time someone tries to make a challenging film for adults, then we can kiss such things goodbye from those who seek award recognition.  If this is a sign of things to come, where Hollywood becomes as frenzied and maddening as politics, then that is a troubling thing indeed.

Many who were too timid or wrongheaded to fully voice their opposition to torture back when it was first uncovered back in 2004 are now offering full-throated and fiery condemnations of Ms. Bigelow for showing recreations of torture and accusing her of endorsing the practice merely by refusing to explicitly condemn it.  She's been called a warmonger, an apologist, and yes, a Nazi.  If this is the kind of reaction we can expect when filmmakers attempt to make adult films with adult sensibilities that speak to its viewers at an adult level, then it's no wonder such films are so increasingly rare in mainstream cinema. The reason this matters beyond mere Oscar prognosticating is that it sends a clear signal to filmmakers who seek to work in the studio system that they shouldn't truly make adult films pitched at adults.  The core sin of Zero Dark Thirty is that it didn't have a supporting character on the sidelines talking about the immorality and/or impracticality of torture.  It didn't have a big scene where the major characters have a debate on torture.  Now such a scene would be implausible considering the film as it exists, yet the absence of this kind of condescending hand-holding has now opened the film up to accusations, from politicians, pundits, even religious leaders (I just received an email from Rabbi Arthur Waskow entitled Should Oscar go to pro-Nazi film Triumph of the Will?).

All because Bigelow and Boal didn't spoon-feed their opinions to the audience in a way that made for easy digestion.  They didn't have a fictionalized scene where a character explicitly explains to the audience how they got each piece of vital information over the eight years during which the film takes place.  They trusted the audience to make the connections.  It's the connection between the opening torture scene and the horrifying terrorist massacre that the torture fails to prevent.  It's the connection between the stopping of torture and use of trickery that elicits worthwhile information that eventually, eight years later and only after the discovery of information that had been in an old file all along , leads to bin Laden's compound.  It's the connection that bribery elicits the key information late in the game rather than torture.  It's the very fact that the film's climactic raid is the least cathartic and least empowering moment of American violence one can imagine.  Those whining that the film endorses torture seem to miss the point that the film doesn't entirely endorse the execution of Osama bin Laden, presenting it as perhaps a necessary evil but a vile, horrific and brutish act of foreign aggression nonetheless.  One must remember that the film initially began back when bin Laden was still alive and it was presumed that he'd never actually be caught.  It was initially a Moby Dick-esque story of futile obsession, and I'd argue the film still stays on that path even with the new ending. 

Bigelow and Boal could have pitched the film to the dumber members of the audience.  They could have had scenes where characters explicitly explained their own moral stances and/or the progression of information that is discovered over eight long and bloody years.  They chose instead to trust the audience and the mainstream media and publicity-hungry politicians have betrayed that trust.  Bigelow and Boal trusted our intelligence and the reaction to the picture has now insulted our intelligence.  It's really no different than the reaction to Zack Snyder's Sucker Punch, where he was accused of committing the very sin he was criticizing because audiences and critics couldn't look past the short skirts.  It's really no different than the rather habitual writing-off of any number of popcorn entertainments because critics and pundits were unwilling to even acknowledge that mainstream studio fare might have some worthwhile ideas beneath the surface.  But this time it happened to a major Oscar contender that received glorious reviews.  This time it happened to a would-be prestige picture, and the resulting firestorm is far more severe than mere dismissal.  Congress wants to launch an investigation, Bigelow and Boal are being compared to Leni Riefenstahl, and one of the best films of 2012, one that dares to not only be critical of the various post-9/11 failures but also one of our alleged successes, is forever tainted by the now accepted notion that it endorses torture on a practical and moral level.

The damage is done and it is severe.  This is why we see so many would-be adult films that are pitched to the level of children.  This is why a film like the R-rated Gangster Squad feels like a kids' adventure that happens to contain graphic violence.  Because truly adult films don't hold our hands and explain everything to the audience.  And in today's 24-hour shock/outrage news cycle, there is no real chance for such a film.  In an era where showing off behavior is automatically seen as endorsing it, in a time where a rather conventional hero's journey like Django Unchained is considered 'brave' and/or 'courageous' purely because it happens to be about slavery, in an era where Spielberg's Lincoln has to fight off charges that it's view on race relations is simplistic (ignoring the very first scene, where Lincoln blows off a valid question of a black Union soldier), there is no room for subtlety and nuance in today's entertainment discourse.  And that's the real moral outrage.  Bigelow will be fine.  The film remains untouched for those who love it.  But the damage has been done and the message is clear: Don't treat adults like adults or you will be pounced upon like screaming children.

For a general discussion of the Oscar nominations, go HERE.