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Previous films based on real-life stories like “The Hurricane” and “Mississippi Burning,” which looked like serious awards contenders when they came out, took hits as disparities arose between what’s on screen and what’s the truth, O’Neil noted.

“The characters were portrayed heroically, then we find out they weren’t that wonderful,” he said.

Omer M. Mozaffar, a religious studies professor at the University of Chicago and Loyola University Chicago whose teachings include literature and history, wrote about even more detailed inaccuracies in the film on Roger Ebert’s website. Mozaffar, who’s originally from Pakistan, pointed out that certain supporting players were speaking the wrong language or had the wrong skin color for the region.

“As an audience member, I trust that what I’m seeing is the truth,” he said. “But it’s a two-sided coin. If the filmmaker is saying something is the truth, I’d hope that what they’re showing is the truth, but audience members must also remember that they’re watching a movie.”

Glenn Whipp, who covers the awards season for the Los Angeles Times, agrees that Oscar voters may feel a bit squeamish about “Zero Dark Thirty” at this point and go for something safe like Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” or “Argo,” which won Golden Globes for best motion picture drama and for director Ben Affleck.

“For academy voters, there’s two issues here: Some believe the filmmakers fudged the facts. And even if they didn’t get it wrong, there’s the notion that showing torture and acknowledging its role in the decade-long hunt for bin Laden all but endorses its use. That’s going to ding the film’s Oscar hopes,” Whipp said. “But Hollywood hates Washington grandstanding, and there’s a deep-seated belief among academy members that the complaints are coming from people pursuing their own political agendas.”

Whipp doesn’t think any perceived controversy surrounding the film was a factor in keeping Bigelow out of contention for best director.

“After all, `Zero Dark Thirty’ was still nominated for picture and four other Oscars,” he pointed out. “It’s more of a case of the directors’ branch still being a boys club.”

Still, “Zero Dark Thirty” star Chastain said it takes a beautiful film to create such impassioned conversation.

Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal, what they’ve done with this film is end it with an unanswered question: `Where do you want to go?’” Chastain told The Associated Press. “They don’t say: `This is what we’ve discovered and this is what’s right and this is what’s wrong.’ They say: `This is what we’ve discovered. What do you think?’ And whenever you leave that opened, it’s going to create controversy because it’s not answered for you. That’s important.”


Associated Press entertainment reporter Nicole Evatt contributed to this report from New York.