The first round of this year's movie awards season went to Kathryn Bigelow's Zero Dark Thirty, which depicts the CIA's decade-long manhunt for Osama bin Laden.
At the New York Critics' Circle Awards on 3 December the film was named Best Picture, and Bigelow Best Director. Within a week, it won again, at the National Board of Review Awards, where its star, Jessica Chastain, also picked up the prize for Best Actress. In the lead-up to its opening weekend, Zero Dark Thirty was praised as the most convincing and accurate portrayal yet of the War on Terror. Richard Corliss, reviewing it for Time magazine, said definitively: "You can plan something else for Oscar night. Zero Dark Thirty will win Best Picture".
Then, the film was released into a swirl of controversy — and the prizes dried up. Since December, it has won almost no major accolades besides a Golden Globe for Chastain, and a Writer's Guild Award for the film's screenwriter Mark Boal.
When the Academy Awards nominations were unveiled, Ms Bigelow was unexpectedly omitted from the Best Director category. Now, the film is an outsider for Best Picture, and the odds have lengthened on Ms Chastain taking home her first Oscar tomorrow night.
Jon Weisman, awards editor of Variety, says, "When people look back at this year they'll see the controversy surrounding Zero Dark Thirty, which took a movie that was winning critics' prizes almost on a daily basis out of the running."
The film's publicity campaign boasted of its journalistic approach to its material, yet it was claims of factual inaccuracy that generated the controversy. Zero Dark Thirty begins with a series of graphic scenes in which a detainee is water-boarded, sleep-deprived and sexually humiliated. A scrap of intelligence that he later provides to his interrogators is portrayed as a potentially significant piece of the intelligence puzzle that led to bin Laden. Three senators, including Californian Democrat Dianne Feinstein and Republican former presidential candidate John McCain, signed a letter in December to Michael Lynton, the chief executive of Sony Pictures, which produced the film, describing that portrayal as "grossly inaccurate".
The chorus of disapproval grew in volume. David Edelstein, film critic of New York magazine, named Zero Dark Thirty his film of the year, but also claimed it "borders on the politically and morally reprehensible." According to the Los Angeles Times, one Academy member was so outraged by the torture scenes that they called on fellow Oscar voters not to reward the film. Michael Morell, the acting director of the CIA, sent a message to agency employees, saying, Zero Dark Thirty creates the strong impression that the enhanced interrogation techniques that were part of our former detention and interrogation program were the key to finding bin Laden. That impression is false." By February, Time was calling it "The most divisive motion picture in memory".
And yet, among the nominees for tomorrow's Oscars, Bigelow's film cannot claim the monopoly on controversy. "People have also questioned Argo's depiction of history, and recently Lincoln," says Weisman. Django Unchained was questioned about its violence and treatment of slavery. Silver Linings Playbook was questioned about its treatment of mental illness.
That's what the conversation has been about: whether the films told the truth or not, whether they were being fair."
Most awards seasons see rumours of negative campaigning alongside the positive. In 2010, for example, Nicholas Chartier, one of The Hurt Locker's producers, was banned from attending the Oscars after he sent an email to Academy members urging them to vote for his film instead of Avatar. In 2013, though, Washington is doing Hollywood's dirty work for it.
Ben Affleck's Iranian hostage drama Argo, now the favourite to win Best Picture, contrasts with Zero Dark Thirty by painting a positive portrait of the US intelligence services. Rather than trumpet his film's adherence to the historical record, however, Affleck has been clear from the start about his tinkering with the truth.
Controversy also dogged the 2002 awards campaign for A Beautiful Mind, which won Best Picture despite misrepresenting the mental illness of mathematician John Nash, fabricating much of his biography, and smoothing over the cracks in his personal life.
"Kathryn Bigelow has her Oscar, so there's no reason to compensate her. Zero Dark Thirty doesn't endorse torture, but people don't like that the torture scenes challenge America's heroic self-image.
"We're so appalled by what we see being done in the name of the USA that the movie takes a beating for it. It's not fair — but the Oscars, like life, are not fair," says Tom O'Neil, editor of awards prediction website GoldDerby.com.