Washington: Beltway stop in the Oscar race

Michael Cieply and Brooks Barnes

This month Senator Al Franken, Democrat-Minnesota, got a laugh from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences when he rose to present an honorary Oscar. Filmmakers, he said, should be flattered to know that powerful lawmakers—like him—talk movies in the Senate cloakroom.

Especially this year.

In the past few weeks Washington and its corridors of power have become an unusual second front in the annual battle for Hollywood's best picture Oscar. No fewer than three leading contenders—Lincoln, Zero Dark Thirty and Argo—have found their prize campaigns entwined with the nation's politics.

Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the majority leader, adjourned the Senate for an unusual 5 pm screening of Lincoln at the Capitol Visitors Center. But even as Reid put in a plug for Lincoln, backers of Zero Dark Thirty were coming to terms with a harsh rebuke from three of Reid's Senate colleagues: Dianne Feinstein and Carl Levin, both Democrats, and the Republican John McCain.

Contending that Zero Dark Thirty falsely credits brutal interrogation techniques with having helped locate Osama Bin Laden—an interpretation of the film challenged by its director, Kathryn Bigelow, and writer, Mark Boal—the senators demanded that Sony state clearly that the film's torture scenes were not based on fact.

Ben Affleck, who directed and starred in Argo, had a better time of it in the House.

Testifying before the Armed Services Committee, Affleck made a plea for stronger measures to protect human rights in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The nation's capital typically ranks low on an Oscar campaign's priority list. But this year some of the more serious contenders were diverted through Washington by their subject matter.

"There have always been pictures that deal with Washington, but it's unusual to have three of them, and all at once," said Tom Sherak, a film consultant and a former president of the Academy.

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