As a filmmaker, Bigelow has always trafficked in the visceral. She likes getting close to the flame. So when she begins Zero Dark Thirty (slight spoilers ahead) with the sounds of emergency calls during 9/11, it’s evident right away that she is not interested in establishing a sober account or approaching her material from a distance, like, for example, the stately, safe, and universally adored Lincoln. The opening sequence is designed to make us feel, literally in the case of one screaming woman, the searing pain of the victims.
That way, when Bigelow smash-cuts to a scene of the torture of a detainee, we’re already compromised, already in the shoes of the CIA agents tasked with eliciting information to prevent another attack. What we witness is savage, but in a sense, we instantly understand why. It’s for reasons such as these that the composition of a film is so often referred to as grammar. Absent the predicate of 9/11, the viewer’s experience would be radically altered. The torture would seem arbitrary and the sympathies would align accordingly.
Instead, the film lingers in the gray. Sequences of brutality pile upon one another, to the point where even the least squeamish become uncomfortable and America’s moral choices are crystallized. Yet, Bigelow intercuts them with scenes from other terrorist attacks: in Saudi Arabia, in London. Why? To help us understand the furtive desperation of the CIA, which then allows us to stay loyal to their cause? Or is it to convince us that all the “enhanced interrogation” in the world did nothing to prevent those attacks and these agents’ efforts are futile and criminal? Bigelow doesn’t connect those dots for us.