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01.30.15 10:45 AM ET

‘American Sniper’ Could Actually Win the Oscar for Best Picture

How the most controversial and politically polarizing film of the year became a legitimate contender for the Academy Award no one thought it would even be nominated for.

This was supposed to be the most boring Oscars race in years. Then came American Sniper.

Clint Eastwood’s intense war drama, a hero’s tale of the most lethal sniper in U.S. military history, has been a lightning rod of a film, serving as a Rorschach test of American politics. It’s also been a bonafide box-office phenomenon, having already earned over $200 million and on pace to be the highest grossing R-rated film of all time, besting The Passion of the Christ. (Leave it to Clint Eastwood to trump God.)

And now, thanks to a surprising late-game shakeup in the Oscars race, American Sniper—the most controversial and politically polarizing film of the year—could become the Academy Award winner for Best Picture.

Really. It could.

“The events of last few weeks have certainly shown us that the Best Picture race is a lot more of a race than anyone really thought,” says Dave Karger, chief correspondent for Fandango and longtime Oscar guru. “I still think Boyhood’s the movie to beat. But there are several other films that are well within striking distance, and American Sniper is certainly one of them.”

Those events that Karger mentions explains how Boyhood, Richard Linklater’s cinematic marvel 12 years in the making, went from the Oscar sure-thing to a suddenly vulnerable contender, with Birdman and, yes, American Sniper, ready to overtake it.

You see, there are metrics and trends that pundits and Oscarologists traditionally use to foretell the Best Picture winner. They’re usually foolproof. And they’re spelling bad news for Boyhood.

For example, the winner of the Producers Guild Award has won Best Picture at the Oscars every year since 2006. Not only did Birdman win the PGA, but it also won the SAG Best Ensemble award—important because actors make up one-fifth of the Academy’s membership. Those two wins have essentially blown up the Oscar race, taking away Boyhood’s frontrunner status and, in some eyes, making Birdman the movie to beat.

But Boyhood isn’t completely out of it. Linklater could win Best Director at the Directors Guild Awards, an award that (with the exception of last year, when Gravity won instead of 12 Years a Slave) goes a long way predicting the eventual Best Picture winner. Plus, Boyhood was always going to be a longshot for the SAG Ensemble award, with just four members in its cast.

There are also some pundits who think that, based on recent events, there’s enough support for Boyhood and Birdman that the two movies could split the vote and the film that everyone is talking about at the moment, American Sniper, will take the prize—even though it’s hasn’t been a rousing smash with precursor awards groups.

“Everything we know about Oscar history has been upended this year, in terms of how we usually measure things,” says Sasha Stone, founder and editor of Awards Daily. No film is poised to take the traditional path to the big prize.

The last time a movie took the PGA award but not the Oscar was when Little Miss Sunshine won the PGA (and the SAG) in 2006 and The Departed won Best Picture. It’s actually a case study that she thinks mirrors the relationship between this year’s presumed frontrunners Boyhood and Birdman and upstart contender American Sniper.

“A lot of people didn’t think The Departed would win Best Picture,” Stone says. “But it was the only one that year that had the meat and potatoes vote. And that’s American Sniper this year.”

If the industry seems to be a little bit obsessed with American Sniper at the moment, it’s not just because of its controversy or its commercial success. It’s also because this whole thing, especially the Oscar inclusion, has been so much of a surprise.

“We came out of the first screening thinking it wasn’t going to be very important in the Oscar race,” Stone says. “We didn’t look at it go, ‘Oh, that’s going to be too much of a hot-button issue politically.’ We just didn’t think the film was good enough.’”

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Critics agreed—its 72 percent Rotten Tomatoes score makes it, by far, the worst-reviewed Best Picture nominee—and, at first, it seemed awards groups seemed to agree as well. It was shut out at the Golden Globes and the SAG Awards and marginalized to a duo of Action Movie nominations at the Critics’ Choice Awards. “But then Clint got the DGA nomination, and it got the Eddie [American Cinema Editors] nomination,” Stone continues. AFI named it one of its movies of the year, and the Producers Guild nominated it.

“You could feel the surge,” Stone says. The thing that helped it the most was its late-in-the-season release—which, interestingly enough, is the thing that hurt another late December release, Selma, the most.

Warner Brothers, which distributed Sniper, kept the film under the radar for much of Oscar season, having the effect of its competitors not seeing it as much of a threat…and therefore not preparing the kinds of attacks against its accuracy that in the end hurt Selma.

“The studio waited to release it wide, so it’s only now that you’re seeing the controversy that would’ve hurt it,” Stone says. “Its popularity is being fueled by good word of mouth and an enormous amount of money being spent on FYC ads. By the time it took off, competitors had no messages prepared to counter those FYC ads.”

The backlash the film is experiencing now hadn’t quite bubbled by the time Oscar nomination ballots were due. Meanwhile, heartrending trailers (that may not have faithfully sold what the film ended up being) were drumming up enthusiasm for the film. “They were selling it really well and nobody was attacking it, which was the key,” Stone says. “It was allowed to grow and flourish and get word of mouth and there was no bad buzz affecting it.”

And, in some respects, the fact there is bad buzz around it—or buzz at all, really—might actually be working in Sniper’s favor. All of the talk shot the film to the top of Oscar voters’ piles of screeners to watch. Everyone is clamoring to see what all the fuss is about.

“It’s the one on everyone’s lips, and that’s a good thing,” Karger says. “It’s a serious film and that helps it. What hurts it is how polarizing it’s become. The movie, whether by design or not, has been politicized. I think that’s something that could hurt its chances. That and the fake plastic baby.”

There are other curios about Sniper that both help and hurt its Oscar bid. For example, the confusing snub of Clint Eastwood in Best Director for a movie that was otherwise showered with Academy love would historically seem like a detriment.

But at the same time, as Karger points out, American Sniper received almost the same Oscar nominations that Argo, a superficially similar film, did in 2013, right down to the snub of its celebrity helmer in Best Director. (Though Argo did get one additional nod for its music.) And Argo won Best Picture.

If there really is as much of a vulnerability in the Best Picture race as some pundits are suggesting and there is room for Sniper to surge to a surprise victory, the question boils down to how much its backlash and its politicization will hurt it.

“Whatever it was that ignited the right and caused the weird racists to crawl out from under rocks and start posting hideous things on Twitter, or got Sarah Palin to start talking about the film at speeches, and the sort of appropriating of the movie by the right—those are things that will rub voters the wrong way,” Stone says.

While Karger concedes that a film needs to appeal to a broad spectrum of voters in order to be a viable winner, and that the politicizing of Sniper will make that hard for it to do, he stresses that “for some people this is not a political film at all.” The fact that it reaches a conservative base of Oscar voters that are typically ignored by Hollywood could, in the end, be a boon for it.

And while both pundits still, albeit with trepidation in their voices, venture that Boyhood will still win Best Picture on February 22, they also agree that the media hoopla and red state hoorah for American Sniper will be a win for the actual Oscars telecast in the end.

After all, before Sniper out-grossed every other Best Picture nominee in just two days of release, Wes Anderson’s twee indie The Grand Budapest Hotel was the highest-grossing contender at a mere $59 million. With Sniper in contention and fueling a nationwide watercooler debate, there’s finally a reason for the general public to care about the Oscars—regardless of political leaning.

“The funny thing about Hollywood is that they’re known to most America for being very liberal,” Stone says. “The Hannitys of the world don’t like Hollywood. They don’t like the Oscars. So now they find themselves in an uncomfortable friendship and alliance because of American Sniper. You might see a much bigger audience of Americans who would never watch that liberal crap tuning in to see if Sniper will win.”

And for those of us awards junkies who were ready to tune-in regardless, we have the rarest of reasons to tune-in, too: the possibility of an Oscar night surprise.