It feels like deja vu: some parties are already quibbling about accuracy in three of the early Oscar contenders out this year. Gravity doesn't exactly do space right. Captain Phillips may have been more responsible for the Somali pirate attack on his vessel than Paul Greengrass' movie would lead you to believe. Solomon Northup's might not have described his 12 years in slavery exactly as it happened.
But according to Steve Pond at The Wrap, the films don't need to worry. Though he writes that "whisper campaigns" about the films' problems have begun to surface, he adds that these sort of complaints probably don't add up to much. "Whether or not strings are being pulled, there’s little reason to think that complaints about Sandra Bullock’s underwear or Solomon Northup’s scholarship or Richard Phillips’ heroism will do much damage to those films’ awards chances," Pond wrote.
So when do accuracy squabbles change the public—and perhaps the Academy's reading of a film. Let's revisit the lessons we learned last year.
Accuracy issues can hurt—when they significantly change the reading of a film.
Zero Dark Thirty sudden crash in last year's Oscar race came amidst wide criticism for its depiction of controversial U.S. interrogation practices. Though the film was riding high off great reviews and a win at the New York Film Critics Circle Awards, political pundits quickly jumped on the film for what they said was its misrepresentation of how torture was used in the process of finding and killing Osama bin Laden. For instance, Glenn Greenwald wrote: "the film glorifies torture by claiming — falsely — that waterboarding and other forms of coercive interrogation tactics were crucial, even indispensable in finding bin Laden." Ultimately, the film was condemned by senators including Dianne Feinstein and John McCain. Soon, it became impossible to discuss the merits of Zero Dark Thirty without discussion its accuracy and therefore its political motives. It wasn't just a movie anymore. It was a statement, and it's hard for Oscar to rally around a statement, especially one so controversial.
The voice complaining has to have Hollywood weight.
When best picture winner Argo screened at the Toronto Film Festival last year, Canadians were already complaining about how ambassador Ken Taylor was portrayed in the film, stating that the film glorifies the CIA while incorrectly underplaying the role Taylor and the Canadian government had in rescuing the hostages. Ben Affleck added a title card to the end of the film to address the complaints. Though issues of accuracy would continue haunt the movie, ultimately the Hollywood powerhouses pushed those concerns aside. Director Ben Affleck thanked Canada in his Oscar acceptance speech.
There's such a thing as too little too late.
By the time a Connecticut congressman started looking onto the accuracy of Steven Spielberg's potrayal of two Connecticut representives voting against the 13th amendment to end slavery in Lincoln (they didn't), the film's Oscar momentum was fading. Not only did Lincoln have less to lose at that point, the accuracy problem ultimately felt like secondary to the overall story.
The films this year don't really seem to have any Zero Dark Thirty level accuracy problems. You can quibble with where the Hubble Space Telescope is placed in relation to the International Space Station in Gravity, but then ultimately argue that it's a science fiction film. It's not Steve McQueen's 12 Years a Slave film that's in question but Solomon Northup's original narrative. The lawsuit calling into question the heroics in Captain Phillips isn't against Phillips, but the ship's owner and operator, and the historical narrative has already branded the titular character a hero. That narrative, of course, could change, but it won't have the political weight of a Zero Dark Thirty problem.