Jessica Chastain, Zero Dark Thirty

Columbia Pictures

The bad news for Zero Dark Thirty is that it's leading the league in controversy. The good news is Oscar front-runners almost always do.

An awards-season look at the under-fire Osama bin Laden thriller directed by Kathryn Bigelow, opening in a handful of theaters today:

It's Neo-Con Propaganda! That's the cry of liberal pundits like New York Times columnist Frank Bruni, who argues the film "appears to suggest" waterboarding was a necessary evil in the bin Laden manhunt. Even in a rave, New York's David Edelstein wrote Zero Dark Thirty's treatment of torture "borders on the politically and morally reprehensible."

It's Left-Wing Propaganda! That's the cry of conservative politicos who charge that Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal, the team behind the Oscar-winning The Hurt Locker, were given top-secret info by the federal government in order to make the world's most elaborate infomercial for President Barack Obama.

The Lesson of 24: Year after year, the Kiefer Sutherland TV series was hit by op-ed pieces that accused it of glorifying torture. Year after year, liberal Hollywood voted it awards, including the 2006 Emmy for Outstanding Drama Series.

The Lesson of Fahrenheit 9/11: Michael Moore's critics didn't think his film was fair and balanced; it won the Best Documentary Oscar anyway.  

Defense officials play defense on Zero Dark Thirty

The Lesson of All These Lessons? Films (and TV shows) that don't matter don't court controversy because no one cares. Films that do matter get picked apart, especially this time of year, as Bigelow could tell you from any number of Hurt Locker experiences.

But Wait…Enter John McCain: The former presidential candidate, U.S. senator and, oh, yes, war hero and torture survivor has slammed Zero Dark Thirty, and slammed it hard, on the torture issue. This smackdown feels significant if only because McCain shares demographic DNA with the typical Oscar voter.  

The Outlook for Zero Dark Thirty? Right now, the film is still up there on the Best Picture leaderboard with Lincoln and Les Misérables. Of the three, it has the longest odds, but honestly, they're not all that long.'s Oscar watchers even have Zero Dark Thirty ahead of the suddenly fading Les Mis.

If Critics' Awards Were Oscar Votes: Then Zero Dark Thirty would be in the lead. More than Lincoln and Les Mis, the Bigelow film has owned the movie-review crowd.

One Troubling Sign (That Has Nothing to Do With McCain): Zero Dark Thirty will not compete for the Screen Actors Guild Awards' ensemble award. The last time a film won the Best Picture Oscar without snagging at least a SAG nomination for its cast was the first time the award was presented, all the way back in the 1995 film year.

Jessica Chastain Is the New Meryl Streep: Unless, that is, she's the new Viola Davis. Like the 2012 Best Actress Oscar campaign, the race between Zero Dark Thirty's Chastain and Silver Linings Playbook's Jennifer Lawrence looks to be tight, per oddsmakers.

Bigelow Probably Won't Be the Old Bigelow: If Steven Spielberg doesn't win for Lincoln, then Bigelow will still have to get past Argo's Ben Affleck to score her second Best Director statuette. 

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