...This, I think, is where Zero Dark Thirty transcends into the all-timer category. The film presents these things, these uglinesses of this nebulous war, in a completely non-judgmental way. This is how it happened, the film says, and you get to decide for yourself if it was worth it. Some may argue that the film comes down on the side of the CIA - after all, it’s being told from their point of view, not Osama bin Laden’s - but I think that the movie’s actually much more viewpoint neutral. It’s Maya’s POV, not a nationalistic one, and by the end of the movie Maya has a very personal stake in the proceedings.
There’s that same understated ugliness in the raid on bin Laden’s compound (which, despite being recorded history whose outcome I knew well, plays with almost unbearable tension). Seal Team Six shooters casually put bullets through the hearts of downed enemies - men and women alike. The film doesn’t explain why, but it’s obvious - you can’t have this injured guy getting up and shooting you in the back. Bigelow and Boal treat the viewer like adults, never having a character say this, but they do play it like humans, and have characters - however briefly - express across their faces the impact of shooting a downed opponent. There are no histrionics, no moments of hesitation, no swelling strings. But it’s there. Subtly it’s there.
That casual ugliness is in service of something bigger. There’s an unspoken argument (so much in this film, by the way, is unspoken. It’s almost like Bigelow intended this as a movie for thinkers, not for Call of Duty: Modern Warfare thumb twitchers) that you have to bend your ethics for the bigger picture. It’s something that could fuel hours of post-film debate; I can see people walking out Zero Dark Thirty disgusted by the CIA’s actions, while others walk out energized, wanting to join the Agency. I found myself somewhere in the middle.