The Big Picture

Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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'The Hurt Locker' Oscar imbroglio: Are there really any dark forces behind it?

March 4, 2010 | 12:31 pm

If there were ever a quintessential example of Oscar hysteria, it's the past week of loopy media coverage reacting to a storm of criticism directed at "The Hurt Locker," Kathryn Bigelow's taut Iraq war thriller that had in recent weeks become a leading contender to win the Oscar for best picture this Sunday. Everyone likes to take pot shots at the Oscar front-runner. It's happened over and over in year's past, from a fusillade of attacks on the credibility of "A Beautiful Mind" a decade ago to a string of accusations against "Slumdog Millionaire" for its treatment of its Indian actors last year.

The-hurt-locker-movie-poster It's worth noting that both films won anyway. But I have to admit that I'm taking this year's media hysteria a little more personally, since my newspaper has somehow been cast as the bad guy, being the subject of charges that it has been manipulated by dark forces -- i.e. Harvey Weinstein -- in a supposed effort to harm "The Hurt Locker's" Oscar hopes.

Of course, many of "The Hurt Locker's" wounds have been self-inflicted. Nicolas Chartier, one of the film's producers, was disciplined by the academy the other day after sending out an unbelievably dumb e-mail to academy members, urging them to vote for his film rather than a "$500 million" behemoth -- an obvious reference to "Avatar," its arch Oscar rival. The "Hurt Locker" team is also now being sued by Jeffrey Sarver, an army sergeant who alleges that the film's main character, played by Jeremy Renner, was largely based on Sarver's own exploits in Iraq, pointing to the fact that Sarver was the focus of a lengthy Playboy story about bomb disposal experts in Iraq written by "Hurt Locker" screenwriter Mark Boal.

But what really got the blogosphere frothing at the mouth was an in-depth Feb. 26 front-page news story in the L.A. Times that quoted a variety of U.S. soldiers and bomb disposal experts criticizing the veracity of some of the film's scenes. Although the story also included high praise for the film from no less than Defense Secretary Robert Gates, it also had some explosive criticism from real-life EOD technicians, with one Iraq vet scoffing at a scene in which a bomb is defused with wire cutters, saying "it's similar to having a firefighter go into a building with a squirt bottle."

Most media observers instantly interpreted the story -- written by a three-person team, including an entertainment reporter, a Pentagon correspondent and a Baghdad-based war correspondent -- as an awards season hit piece designed to hurt the film's credibility with Oscar voters (even though the piece was published only days before the Oscar ballot deadline, after most members had likely filed their picks). Movieline's S.T. VanAirsdale offered a typical take on the piece, referring to as a "curiously timed dispatch," adding that while no one was second-guessing the Iraq soldiers' complaints about the film, "I'll totally second-guess the editors who seem to have left the 'Additional reporting by Harvey Weinstein in Baghdad' credit off the story."

It has a clever ring to it, but what evidence does VanAirsdale have that Weinstein had anything to do with the story? Ahem. None at all. VanAirsdale just tosses it out there because it has a nice ring to it. Meanwhile, The Wrap's Steve Pond has now weighed in, claiming that The TImes has published 11 stories in four days casting "The Hurt Locker" in a negative light. Of course, many of those "stories" were blog posts from our Oscar bloggers, who churn out posts at the speed of light, so it's hardly a surprise to find that -- especially with a huge lawsuit and an academy punishment of one of the film's producers making news -- that we'd have generated a lot of coverage.

Pond insinuates that the newspaper has some sort of campaign against the film. But when it comes to producing evidence, he has none. Zip. Nada. It makes his coverage feel just like all the usual whispering campaigns that Oscar consultants have used in the past to bash previous front-runners. 

The most depressing aspect of this whole imbroglio is that for all the reams of copy that been churned out about The Times' supposed campaign against "The Hurt Locker," no one bothered to mention that the paper has also written reams of stories casting the film in a favorable light, starting with this piece out of the Toronto Film Festival in 2008, and most recently a Feb. 28 front-page Sunday Calendar story that offered a glowing appreciation of Bigelow's work as a filmmaker. Bigelow was also the subject of another highly complimentary cover story in The Envelope, our paper's Oscar season weekly.

Equally dispiriting is the fact that none of these hapless second-guessers ever did any leg work to find out how the paper's front-page story about the film's accuracy came about in the first place. If they'd bothered to ask, they would've learned that the day after "The Hurt Locker" won its BAFTA Award, making it really look like the awards-season film to beat, the paper's top editors had a Monday-morning news meeting where one of the editors essentially asked a question that the paper had never fully answered -- what does the military, including boots-on-the-ground soldiers in Iraq, think of the movie? Three of our top reporters, including one of our Baghdad correspondents, set to work trying to come up with some answers, which resulted in our front-page story.

It remains the most in-depth piece written about the film's complex mixture of questionable dramatic license and vivid authenticity, but if you only read the Oscar season's blogosphere chattering class, you'd think it was part of a deep, dark plot to bring the movie down. It just goes to show -- when it comes to awards season reporting, why would any of the Oscar pundits ever let the facts get in the way when they could indulge in crackpot conspiracy theories?    

Photo from "The Hurt Locker" from Summit Entertainment