Will ‘Hurt Locker’ Controversy Affect Its Oscar Chances?

With a rash of critics attacking the film's portrayal of the military, some experts wonder if the backlash was orchestrated.

Weeks before the 2009 Academy Awards, news broke that two of the child actors in awards-season darling “Slumdog Millionaire” were still living in squalor and had allegedly not been fairly compensated for their work on the worldwide blockbuster. It was an inflammatory story that dominated entertainment headlines and dogged the film’s producers up until “Slumdog” took home eight Oscars , including Best Picture, in late February.

A year later, the same narrative seems to be repeating itself with the Iraq war drama [movie id="357580"]“The Hurt Locker.”[/movie] Following a string of key awards-season wins — from the Directors Guild of America to the BAFTAs to the Broadcast Film Critics — the film finds itself under assault from a rash of critics, including in the Los Angeles Times and The New York Times, highlighting purported inaccuracies. It’s an assault some fear could affect the movie’s chances of winning big on Oscar night.

” ‘The Hurt Locker’ tries to articulate that experience [of modern warfare], but those of us who have served in the military couldn’t help but be distracted by a litany of inaccuracies that reveal not only a lack of research, but ultimately respect for the American military,” Paul Rieckhoff wrote in a Newsweek piece that seemed to touch off the backlash.

Are we seeing the Swiftboating of an important film or valid criticism from those with direct experience of events being played out on the big screen? Is all this an orchestrated conspiracy or merely showbiz as usual?

“It’s like clockwork every year,” Dave Karger of Entertainment Weekly told MTV News. “It’s almost comical at this point. Whatever is perceived as the front-runner, people try to tear it down. I am not saying this is a coordinated attack by any group of people. I think it’s the instinctive reaction of people in Hollywood.”

Not everyone deeply engaged in Oscar prognostication views the “Hurt Locker” controversy as arising purely from the momentum of the media cycle. “It’s obviously coordinated,” Jeff Wells of Hollywood Elsewhere told MTV News. “These things don’t happen at the last minute on their own.”

You can call it a conspiracy or simply the result of news outlets latching on to a timely story, yet the salient question at this point is not how the controversy originated but if it will negatively impact “Hurt Locker” on Sunday during the ceremony.

Wells said any issue about the portrayal of the military being unrealistic should not sway many voters. “For anyone to say that was a defining impact on their view is very young, kind of naive or not very bright,” he said.

Still, the Best Picture race is a close one at this point, with “Hurt Locker” battling against “Avatar,” and neither film can afford to dismiss the importance of grabbing every last vote. “Last year, ‘Slumdog’ was so far out in front, no other movie was going to win anyway,” Karger said. “This year, because it is so close, I think ‘The Hurt Locker’ could very well lose. And I would hate that that might be because of any negative campaigning.”

And then there are those who have been criticizing “The Hurt Locker” not because of any campaign, but because they view the portrayal of servicemen as inaccurate and unfair. John Nolte, the editor of conservative entertainment site Big Hollywood, who has been writing about the film since before its release last summer, takes specific issue with the movie’s main character (played by Jeremy Renner). “He’s driven by an addiction,” Nolte told MTV News. “He’s sort of a post-traumatic-stress candidate, as opposed to a heroic, noble character, which you’ve seen soldiers bring up in the form of [criticizing] his recklessness, his disregard for the rules and the fact that he practically gets one of his own men killed.”

Such criticism aside, and even allowing for the possibility of a backlash conspiracy, Nolte argues that any sort of warfare-based condemnation will ring hollow when it comes time for Academy voters to cast their ballots. “I just can’t imagine that being anti-military or anti-American would hurt ‘The Hurt Locker’ with a left-wing Hollywood,” he said. “If it was an orchestrated campaign, the best way to hurt the film would be to call it a John Wayne, flag-waving, jingoistic film.”

So what does all this mean come Sunday night? Will the announcement of “Avatar” or “The Hurt Locker” as the Best Picture winner put to rest this hullabaloo? Or will the controversy join the many others — from “Slumdog” to complaints about the treatment of a spinal-cord patient in “Million Dollar Baby” to allegations that the real-life star of “A Beautiful Mind” was an anti-Semite — as part of Oscar lore? And will we be spinning the same narrative in 2011?

David Poland of Movie City News has a feeling we might. “There’s never a conspiracy, but you can put something in the water,” he told MTV News. “I feel like the media feels a need to cover it. There are positive stories. There are negative stories. It’s standard operating bullsh–. It’s not special. It is not brutal. It’s the just the way it is.”

The 2010 Academy Awards are almost here, and MTV News has it covered every which way — with photos, interviews, live blogs and more. Be sure to visit MTV.com on Sunday at 7 p.m. ET for our live Oscars red-carpet show, where we’ll be talking to everyone from Clooney and Bullock to Kristen and Taylor.

Check out everything we’ve got on “The Hurt Locker.”

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