How Badly Will the Assault Hurt ‘Locker’?

With most ballots in, the effect is limited -– but in a tight race, even slight swings can be crucial

Last Updated: March 4, 2010 @ 2:09 PM

In one way, the latest controversy to hit “The Hurt Locker” is similar to the one that launched open season on the Oscar front-runner just last week.

Each was caused by someone with good reason to want Kathryn Bigelow’s movie to win.

The Hurt Locker

Why else would the lawyer for Master Sgt. Jeffrey Sarver — the soldier who claims "The Hurt Locker" is based on his life — wait until 40 minutes after the Oscar polls closed to announce his lawsuit? (The theory being that an Oscar-winning “Hurt Locker” is a more profitable legal target. Or maybe they just want to appear to take the high road.)

The complaint capped a stormy run of bad news for the film that began when reports surfaced last week that one of the film’s producers, Nicolas Chartier (pictured below), wrote emails soliciting a vote for “The Hurt Locker” instead of the “$500M film” — a clear reference to Best Picture rival “Avatar.”

The message ran afoul of an Academy rule prohibiting any derogatory or disparaging communications about another film, and resulted in the loss of Oscar tickets for Chartier, who will not be allowed to attend the ceremony.

On the heels of that controversy — the news of which was eagerly emailed around town by rivals of “The Hurt Locker” — the L.A. Times ran a front-page story in which veterans and current soldiers criticized the film for its inaccuracies.

In fact, between Tuesday and Friday, the Tiimes published 11 different stories that cast the film in a negative light – including the front-page piece that included the explosive charge that the filmmakers had driven a Humvee into a Palestinian refugee camp to film scenes of an angry crowd.

(The only source for that charge was an Army official who was not on the film’s set in Jordan but who said he heard about it from an unidentified Jordanian official. The Times ran the story without mentioning the flat denial it had received from the “Hurt Locker” camp — who pointed out that, in fact, no such scene appears in the film or in any version of the script.)

Those controversies dominated news in the final week of Oscar voting; then, as soon as the polls closed, the Sarver lawsuit was announced. It furthered the sense that the film that once seemed on a course to Best Picture and Best Director victories was under assault on all fronts.

The criticism is not unprecedented for a Best Picture frontrunner.

In 2002, Ron Howard’s “A Beautiful Mind” suffered attacks on a variety of fronts and from a variety of sources, with the Drudge Report leading the way. But despite the critics’ claims that it was a whitewash of its main character, mathematician John Nash, the film went on to win Best Picture.

Will “Hurt Locker” fare as well?

Coming this late in the game, with balloting having ended Tuesday night, the controversies can only have limited effect. But in a tight race, even slight swings can be crucial.

The questions are how many ballots were outstanding when the attacks hit full force, and whether those voters were influenced to change their votes.

On Wednesday, David Poland at the Hot Blog wrote, “Talk this morning is that about 500 Oscar ballots arrived at AMPAS yesterday via walk-in, courier or FedEx/UPS.”

He doesn’t say where that talk came from, and a “statistic” that says the ballots were returned to AMPAS — when they actually go back to PricewaterhouseCoopers — would seem suspicious.

But years ago, a public relations firm did station an employee in the PwC lobby on the final day of voting, and the head of that company told TheWrap that they counted about 500 arriving ballots that day. So it’s certainly conceivable that as much as 10 percent of the vote arrived on the final day, after the allegations against “Hurt Locker” had been in the news for almost a week.

If Bigelow’s picture wins on Sunday, the questions will be moot. (And Nicolas Chartier, Jeffrey Sarver, and Sarver’s lawyer will rejoice.) If it doesn’t, no one will really know whether it was damaged by the week-long assault, or whether the little movie about the Iraq War never was destined to prevail.

Until then, the lawyers can maneuver, the accountants can tally, and director Kathryn Bigelow, screenwriter Mark Boal and the other filmmakers can wonder about Hollywood — a city that for “The Hurt Locker” has come to resemble the lines that Boal wrote about Baghdad in the Playboy magazine article that followed his days with a bomb squad:

“It is a city of bombs – mines, artillery shells, grenades, dynamite, cordite – exploding by suicidal transport or remotely held wireless phones, spreading blood and body parts, leaving a signature of black, greasy smoke curling above the carnage.”