Leon Panetta, 9/11 Families Join Chorus of Support for ‘Zero Dark Thirty’

As final Oscar ballots approach, the controversial Kathryn Bigelow movie picks up support from the secretary of defense, families of 9/11 victims, Martin Sheen and Michael Moore 

Is the tide turning for "Zero Dark Thirty?"

After withstanding a barrage of criticism that turned the film into a political punching bag and may have seriously hurt its awards-season chances, Kathryn Bigelow's gripping procedural about the hunt for Osama bin Laden has in recent days picked up some high-profile endorsements from families of 9/11 victims, a liberal actor who was once counted among the film's critics and former CIA director Leon Panetta — who essentially supported the film's narrative regarding enhanced interrogation techniques.

This comes as the movie nears the $75 million mark at the box office after six weeks in theaters, making it by far Bigelow's top-grossing film. Her previous high was 1991's "Point Break," which grossed $43 million; her Oscar-winning "The Hurt Locker" made only $17 million.

With five Oscar nominations, including  Best Picture, Best Actress (Jessica Chastain) and Best Original Screenplay (Mark Boal), the film remains a major player in awards season. But Bigelow was surprisingly left out of the Best Director race, and the film took a beating for its depiction of torture from some in congress and from a number of left-wing commentators.

Also read: 'Zero Dark Thirty' Steps Into the Line of Fire, Answers Critics

One, actor-turned-activist David Clennon, slammed the film because it "makes heroes of Americans who commit the crime of torture," and encouraged Academy members not to vote for it in any category.

Although the filmmakers and Sony hadn't resonded forcefully to much of the earlier criticism, Clennon's remarks drew harsh condemnation from Sony co-chairman Amy Pascal, who wrote, "We are outraged that any responsible member of the Academy would use their voting status in AMPAS as a platform to advance their own political agenda … This attempt to censure one of the great films of our time should be opposed."

Jessica ChastainSince then, opinion has begun to line up on the side of "ZDT," which was named the year's best picture by a number of critics' groups, including the New York Film Critics Circle and the Washington D.C. Area Film Critics Association.

On Thursday, a coalition of firefighters and families of 9/11 victims released a letter praising the film.

"As a group of 9/11 families sharing a rare moment of justice and elation in the viewing of a film chronicling the search for and ultimate death of Osama bin Laden, we find it deeply disturbing that some of our elected officials want to discourage other 9/11 families and the public from seeing this outstanding film," it read. " … [W]e applaud Mark Boal and Katherine Bigelow for presenting a film that honors history, our military, our country, and the victims of 9/11 – through the excellent portrayal of how the US government and Navy Seals worked to apprehend OBL."

Panetta meanwhile, gave a recent interview to ABC News' Martha Raddatz in which she asked him about "Zero Dark Thirty," in which he is portrayed briefly as CIA chief by James Gandolfini.

"It's a great movie," said Panetta, who is soon to be leaving the post of secretary of defense, adding that while the running time was insufficient to tell the entire story, "I think they did a good job at … indicating how some of this was pieced together."

And when Raddatz pressed him on the film's controversial suggestion that enhanced interrogation techniques may have provided information leading to bin Laden, Panetta essentially supported the film's narrative. "Obviously, [enhanced interrogation] was something that was used," he said. "As I've indicated in the past, I know obviously there were some bits of information that came from that."

Around the time that Panetta came to the film's defense, actor Martin Sheen told the New York Times that he was incorrectly listed alongside Clennon and Ed Asner as a harsh critic of the film. In fact, Sheen said, he thought the film has "done great, great service" by bringing the issue of torture to the forefront, and that he "was very moved and troubled by it."

Time magazineWhen he agreed to put his name to a statement from Clennon and Asner, he said, he thought the statement would simply condemn torture, and not blame the movie or suggest that Academy members should not vote for it.

Other recent supporters of the film include filmmaker and liberal activist Michael Moore, who posted a lengthy defense of the film on his Facebook page, where he detailed the film's narrative, in which torture helps produce information the CIA already had, and the true progress is made after enhanced interrogation is no longer tolerated.

"'Zero Dark Thirty' is a disturbing, fantastically made movie," he wrote. "It will make you hate torture. And it will make you happy you voted for a man who stopped all that barbarity – and who asked that the people over at Langley, like him, use their brains."

An edited version of the Moore essay ran on the website for Time magazine, which also put Bigelow on the cover of its Feb. 4 issue. In the story, Bigelow says of the film, "I think that it's a deeply moral movie that questions the use of force. It questions what was done in the name of finding bin Laden."

There's no telling how the initial criticism of the movie hurt "ZDT" in the eyes of awards voters, though Academy members were casting ballots during the time when the controversy was heating up.

And there's no telling whether the recent defenses of the film have come too late – but it's worth noting that final Oscar ballots aren't available until Feb. 8, which gives a little more time for the season's hot-button movie to edge a little closer to the climate that Sony's Pascal hoped for when she wrote, "We believe members of the Academy will judge the film on its true merits and will tune out the wrongful and misdirected rhetoric."