Will Alex Gibney ever run out of conspiracies and evildoing to expose? Of course not, and there's no better man for the job. With his new documentary “Zero Days,” Gibney turns his tenacious, headline-friendly and extremely well-sourced attentions to cyber war — that fanciful-sounding but very real, very dangerous newcomer to the world of state malfeasance. While much his subject matter here is already known, or suspected, he dramatizes it well enough to make me sleep a little less well tonight. (Magnolia Pictures has acquired U.S. theatrical rights to "Zero Days," and Showtime plans to air the film later this year.)
The starting point, of the film and his trail, is the omnipotent computer virus Stuxnet, first identified in 2010 when it wormed its way into and set back Iran's nuclear program, before running rampant through computer systems all over the world. Stuxnet was more in keeping with cyber espionage than terrorism, in that no-one was rushing to take responsibility, secrecy the prevailing ethos. And for a time, Stuxnet was a mystery, conjuring images of evil masterminds writing destructive code, for unknown though clearly nefarious purposes; until, that is, computer security experts started following the code and joining the dots.
And for its initial phase Gibney's film plays exactly like a detective story, led by two security analysts, Eric and Liam, an engaging pair who pored over code more sophisticated than anything they'd ever seen. Michael Mann would watch this and weep; where he turned similar material into his thriller “Blackhat” to tedious effect last year, cementing the notion that you simply couldn't make computer tech arresting on film, Gibney shows how it's done, using real people with a gift for making their world accessible, a driving soundtrack, an restless array of talking heads, newsreel, and a decent graphic interpretation of some of the ideas at play.
It's pretty gripping, not least because we're given a sense of how hacking can affect the material world, sabotaging industrial systems, causing palpable harm and disarray. A demonstration — using just a balloon — of how Stuxnet could cause the chaos in Iran’s uranium enrichment plan is superbly simple, potent and chilling.
Around this point Gibney switches to the who and the why, and the film takes a different tack. It's been clear where he’s been heading, the culprits being not malware criminals but nation states. And while a succession of talking heads trip out the "I can't possibly comment" line too many times (Gibney over-egging his intrepid image in this regard) all roads lead to the U.S. and Israel, together conspiring to rid Iran of its potential for nuclear threat.
Hereon history is combined with conspiracy theory, propped up by investigative reporting, to chart the changing use of computer technology from defense to offense and a new form of global warfare, with President Obama in the thick of it, and Israel making life very difficult for its ally. For those becoming inured to government conspiracy in the post-Snowdon world — and Gibney does drag this out — the film offers a compensatory and piquant sideshow, involving the querulous relationship between the super-power pushed too far, too quickly by its aggressive smaller partner, the end result being that Stuxnet has shown the way for an array of similar attacks on the U.S. itself.
The most telling of Gibney’s interviewees,
the only one prepared to spell out the ill deeds at work, is a whistle-blower
with a sting in the tail, appropriately concealed by computer generated
disguise. Other than her, the director has assembled journalists, computer
experts and former senior members of the security counterparts in both the U.S. and Israel, all pointing the finger in the same direction but few prepared to
confirm the thesis on the record. The most galling participant is Michael Hayden,
former chief of both the NSA and the CIA, who comes across as smugly happy with
the suggestion of his country's dodgy dealings, and really ought to be in hiding after the allegations of another recent conspiracy-doc, “The Good American.”