Such ambivalence plays out in a number of different ways, but starts with the various scenes of torture early in the film. Bigelow has taken heat over these scenes by critics like Glenn Greenwald (of the UK's Guardian) and David Edelstein (of New York magazine)—partly because many sources have argued that such techniques did not actually result in intelligence used to find bin Laden. As Edelstein wrote even while naming Zero Dark Thirty the year's No. 1 film, it "borders on the politically and morally reprehensible. By showing these excellent results—and by silencing the cries of the innocents held at Abu Ghraib, Bagram, and other 'black sites'—it makes a case for the efficacy of torture." I'm not convinced that's true, through, given Bigelow's brutal portrayal. With the same sharp style of The Hurt Locker, from a meticulous score by Alexandre Desplat to heavy dialogue and tight hand-held camerawork, Bigelow and cinematographer Greig Fraser candidly capture these horrific scenes; they make us feel deeply uncomfortable from the get-go. Speaking through the severity of such violence, Bigelow makes her moral point of view clear: She sees torture, particularly waterboarding, for what it is—dehumanizing and degrading. She also sees violence and war in a similar way. When her film finally reaches its climax and a team of Navy SEALS invades bin Laden's mansion, the finale focuses more on the crying women and children present then the actual takedown of bin Laden, evoking sympathy.
Still, despite its disdain for torture and violence and a humanization of its enemies, Zero Dark Thirty paints the effects of bin Laden's death in a positive light. Due to the intensity of the climax—a suspense that keeps you anxious despite knowing the outcome—a subtle feeling of satisfaction overtakes the tone when the man behind 9/11 is finally put to death; it's a sigh of relief. Bigelow takes in the moment through the quiet celebrations of the soldiers and Maya's look of consolation when she zips open the body bag to identify bin Laden, treating it as a special part of American history. Almost celebratory, this finale stands in contrast to Bigelow's prior handling of violence in Zero Dark Thirty, and the juxtaposition epitomizes her conflicted understanding of the matter, the very thing that makes Zero Dark Thirty relevant and honorable.
This inner conflict culminates through her muse, Maya, in the closing sequence. After Maya completes her mission and boards an airplane, the camera pans in for a close-up; she looks both scarred and satisfied, as a tear rolls down her face. It's a moment that sums up Zero Dark Thirty precisely, and a moment that in of itself answers some of those questions that still surround bin Laden's death. In Maya's involved expression, Bigelow doesn't reveal whether she believes the whole operation was worth it, because, like so many of us, she probably doesn't know. That said, she does suggest that bin Laden's death was a good thing given the evil which the man represented—and his potential for masterminding more terrorist attacks. But at the same time, Bigelow acknowledges the detrimental implications of achieving his death and, moreover, its inability to bring complete redemption and resolution to the many affected by his actions.