That’s what all the hand-wringing over the depiction of torture in this film seems to overlook. It doesn’t flinch from that depiction, but it also doesn’t shy away from showing the collateral damage it causes, both physical and emotional. In a way, Zero Dark Thirty is a companion piece to Steven Spielberg’s Munich, in that both ask if a proportionate response to a reprehensible act does nothing but lead to more reprehensible acts. Which is exactly what plays out in the early going of Zero Dark Thirty. Prisoners are taken and tortured, more terrorist acts ensue, more prisoners are taken, more attacks ensue. It’s a cycle that wears down those who are part of it, the torturer as well as the tortured. One CIA operative wearily talks about wanting to go and do something normal for a while. And Jessica Chastain’s Maya eventually loses her initial revulsion at the treatment of the prisoners as she becomes more and more obsessed with finding bin Laden. She’s worn down to the point where, when she finally see bin Laden’s body, she can manage nothing more than a numb nod, and later, tears.
It’s this focus on Maya that, surprisingly, makes the actual raid on bin Laden’s compound feel a little bit like a thematic misstep. From a simple storytelling perspective, we’re suddenly introduced to a whole new batch of characters who come in and take over the film for a good forty minutes. That’s not a bad thing in and of itself, but those characters take us away from Maya. It makes that moment when she finally see bin Laden feel a little less weighty, since we’ve just watched the entire mission unfold. We’re taken out of Maya’s point of view and placed into a Call of Duty mission. Make no mistake, it’s incredibly tense and well done, but it almost feels like a nod to the crowd who were upset they didn’t get a wolf fight at the end of The Grey. A film about the hunt for bin Laden has to have its money shot. It’s nothing that kills the film; I just think staying with Maya so that the first time we see bin Laden’s body is the first time she sees it would have made for a much more powerful moment.
Another thing the torture controversy misses is that the information gained from it in the film pales next to that gathered by good old-fashioned surveillance work. The torture gets them a name, yes, but it’s a new staffer finding an old photo that puts them on the right track. It’s eyes on the street who detect the patterns that lead to bin Laden’s compound. It’s spy satellites — and the intelligence to read their images properly — that eventually convince those in charge to proceed with the mission. Only once the blind passionate response gives way to the cooler, more analytic approach are any real results achieved. And at a far less brutal cost to all involved.
There’s a great ambiguity to the tears Maya sheds at the end of the film. Are they for the friends lost? The compromising lengths gone to in the pursuit? The realization that the focus of the last decade of her life is gone? The overwhelming sense that all this wasn’t enough? We’re left to decide for ourselves. But there’s definitely the sense that the wounds of 9-11 were far too great for even the death of its architect to bandage. Especially when the steps taken to bring that death about may have wounded us further.