In late 2009, an unprecedented cyber-attack caused the destruction of about 1000 centrifuges at an Iranian nuclear facility. The culprit was malware software that affected the computer system controlling the plant’s fuel enrichment equipment, and it was the first time such a digital offensive measure resulted in so much physical damage. “That was something that was always Hollywood-esque to us. That we’d laugh at,” says Symantec cyber detective Eric Chien in the documentary Zero Days. The real world was suddenly capable of things only screenwriters imagined possible.
As Alex Gibney’s film asserts, the attack was part of a joint operation by the U.S. and Israeli governments to hinder Iran’s nuclear program. Neither nation officially acknowledges this, but it’s pretty much fact. The irony is that in attempting to thwart the enemy’s creation of nuclear bombs, the operation seems to have opened up a potentially worse arms race where it also helped most of the world cross the finish line simultaneously. Commonly known as Stuxnet, the software could be seen as the Fat Man and Little Boy of a new age, even if it did far less damage upfront.
Not only is the development of this next-level cyberwarfare “Hollywood-esque” in its execution, but the telling of its story is thrilling on the level of a blockbuster spy movie. The stunts and chase scenes aren’t there, but otherwise Zero Days isn’t all that different from the latest Mission: Impossible or Bourne sequel. It’s definitely more exciting than the recent 007 picture, Spectre. Like all of them, there is a good deal of technical mumbo jumbo that an average viewer won’t understand (but here it’s not actually nonsense), and that’s okay because the plot is compelling anyway.
I won’t claim to know what in the doc is new information, though most of the story presumably hasn’t been followed by most Americans. It’s complicated, and as it unfolded the pieces weren’t often attractive on their own. Gibney’s film puts it all together and offers a riveting framework around the difficult stuff much like he did with his Oscar-nominated 2005 breakout, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room. There’s more of an investigative element to Zero Days, however, that has us feeling like we’re on board a tank plowing through the information.
As usual, Gibney has gotten interviews with all the necessary big dogs, including former heads of the CIA and the NSA, and it’s a frustrating but surely also a fun game for the filmmaker to get a lot of tight lips along with everything helpful and shocking that does flow from the mouths of these very notable security officials. It’s another doc concentrated on talking heads, and some like Chien and his partner at Symantec are more clear for the layman than others. At one point, another tech guy starts referring to complex items as “thingies,” and it’s really appreciated.
Gibney is a master when it comes to finding interesting new ways to work with talking heads, too. Reminiscent of his employment of an actress to play the part of an anonymous source in Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer, here he has a digital talking head standing in for multiple NSA whistleblowers who remain unknown. It’s not unusual in most forms of journalism to have unidentified sources, but how does one work around that with cinematic reporting? For Zero Days, Gibney found yet another clever solution, one visually in tune with the film’s aesthetic.
The doc is such a thrill that it’s easy to forget how truly chilling its subject matter is. It resonates and may even haunt you, similar to the films Countdown to Zero and Citizenfour. Without getting too much into the details it lays out, regarding the past and the future of what Stuxnet is really all about, it’s okay to note Zero Days does involve Edward Snowden, the history of the Iranian nuclear program, both the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations and all kinds of spies. Including the kind that work in cubicles decorated with giant Lego Death Stars.
If you’re the sort who prefers his spy movies to be on the ground with its heroes and packed with action, Zero Days does paint enough of a picture of its world and events that even someone with the most basic imagination could simply fill in the rest. The film even manages to make screens full of computer code exciting to anyone, through practical animation. Kudos to Gibney for achieving such an engaging and enlightening doc without needing to resort to too much fluff. Another filmmaker would have had Matt Damon do voiceover narration.
It is surprising Zero Days doesn’t have more buzz. It might have to do with it premiering at Berlin instead of Sundance or Toronto. It could also have something to do with the synopsis, which isn’t sexy as written (compared to, say, his more tiresome Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief) and may turn people off with its complexity. I’ll be honest: I still have no clue what “zero-day vulnerability,” which is where the title comes from, is. It doesn’t matter. The essential points of the doc are very comprehensible and very electrifying in their presentation.