LOS ANGELES - Moments after screening his film Argo for the first time for awards voters last fall, Ben Affleck took the podium for an announcement.
Though based on a real incident during the Iran hostage crisis in 1979, the film, particularly the final act, was fabricated, he told voters.
"He admitted there was no final car chase, no last-minute tension at the airport," recalls Tom O'Neil, head of film-awards website Goldderby.com, who attended. "Ben said those elements were there just for edge-of-your-seat excitement. And that was it. The issue (of historical accuracy) never really came up again."
Not so for Zero Dark Thirty, the chronicle of the 10-year hunt for Osama bin Laden. Though director Kathryn Bigelow and writer Mark Boalpresented the film as drama, both say it was informed by government officials who gave classified details on background. The movie has come under fire by critics, who say its depiction of waterboarding glorifies government interrogation methods, and by government officials, who question the accuracy and source of the information.
The opposing receptions of the two films, analysts say, could determine the outcome of the Academy Awards Feb. 24 and underscore Oscar voters' finicky views of how films deal with facts.
Although both films earned best-picture nominations and have done well at the box office - Argo has collected $120 million, Zero $78 million - Argo has become the film to beat, and Zero is considered a dark horse.
Zero "was killed by a thousand cuts of question marks," says David Poland of the film site Moviecitynews.com.
Poland says that the films' differing approaches to history led to different fates with awards circles, which have gone overwhelmingly in Argo's favor since it took the Golden Globe for best drama last month.
"People don't applaud at the end of Zero Dark Thirty, they're in shock," he says. "It's a demanding movie, and people don't always respond well to a demanding movie. Argo is not emotionally demanding or intellectually challenging. It's a Hollywood movie."
Oscar season is rife with "true life" stories. One-third of the nine best-picture nominees are based on real events (Lincoln, the third film, has largely avoided scrutiny because the history is so dated, the script is based partly on a book by a respected historian, and "you feel good after it," O'Neil says.)
But hewing closely to the facts - or claiming to - can undercut a film's chances, analysts say.
The Hurricane, the 1999 story of Rubin "Hurricane" Carter, who was wrongly imprisoned for murder, was considered a lock for a best-picture Oscar nomination. But questions about Carter's real life - and his heroic portrayal in the movie - relegated the film solely to a best-actor nomination for Denzel Washington (he did not win).
O'Neil says a film's fate can rest not only in how it treats the facts but in how it couches them.There Will Be Blood, for example, the 2007 film that director Paul Thomas Anderson said was loosely based on oil tycoon Edward L. Doheny, dodged the firestorm. That film earned a best-picture nomination "by avoiding controversy by not using real names," O'Neil says. "There was a wink to the audience that it was a true story, but the film never came out and claimed that."
Zero has "taken an unfair bashing for portraying torture at all, even though the government hasn't denied waterboarding," he says. "It's not a movie that does much for our self-image."
Argo and Lincoln, Poland says, have fared better "because you applaud at the end. They're palatable cinema."
Under the microscope, "no Oscar biographical film is going to pass a truth test," O'Neil says. "The trick is to not take that test in the first place."