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Review: Zero Days (2016)

Zero Days (2016)

Directed by: Alex Gibney

Premise: A documentary about the Stuxnet computer virus that was allegedly created in a joint effort by the United States and Israel for the purpose of disrupting Iran’s nuclear facilities.

What Works: Filmmaker Alex Gibney has proven to be one of the best and most fearless documentarians working in American cinema, having taken on institutions such as Wall Street, the Church of Scientology, and Apple. Gibney continues to expose important stories of our time with Zero Days, a documentary about a computer virus. As a subject, hacking and industrial sabotage might not sound particularly exciting but Zero Days plays like a real life spy thriller and in many respects that is exactly what this is. The film makes the convincing case that throughout the past decade the United States and Israel cooperated on a venture to stop Iran from developing nuclear weapons. Both country’s military and intelligence services created and deployed a complex piece of malware that caused centrifuges in the Natanz nuclear facility to self-destruct in such a way that the engineers of the installation were unaware that they’d been hacked. But the virus was eventually discovered and proliferated across the globe, creating a new dimension of warfare in much the same way that the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings of World War II incited a nuclear arms race. The filmmakers of Zero Days understand the kind of story they are telling and borrow some of the visual styles of Hollywood spy films and present this story in a way that maximizes the viewer’s interest. This is a terrific example of combining the documentary form with the stylings of drama. Zero Days begins in the middle of the narrative with internet security experts encountering a new and complex piece of malware. Their detective work leads to an intriguing backstory of the United States’ complicated history with Iran and the development of the Stuxnet virus. The movie includes an impressive roster of interviewees including New York Times reporter David Sanger, former CIA and NSA director Michael Hayden, and former Deputy Director-General of the International Atomic Energy Agency Olli Heinonan.  Their testimony lends the film a lot of credibility but what’s especially interesting is how much they cannot say. The Stuxnet mission is still classified and the film implies that this prevents citizens and nations from dialoging about the implications of this new field of warfare and establishing some rules of engagement.

What Doesn’t: One of the consistently impressive elements of Alex Gibney’s films is the way he links a topic to a wider reaching concern. Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Elliot Spitzer used the career of the former New York governor to discuss corruption on Wall Street and Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief exposed the religious organization but also interrogated the inherent danger of faith and devotion. By comparison, Zero Days isn’t quite as penetrating. This picture does make overtures to broader concerns about cyberwarfare and government secrecy but it only begins to explore the Pandora’s Box that the Stuxnet virus has unleashed. Zero Days also uses a lot of computer generated imagery and while some of it effectively visualizes abstract issues the style is a little too extreme and looks hokey in a way that undermines the seriousness of the picture. This is especially true in the digital distortion of a key interviewee; it’s revealed at the end of the movie that she is really an actress reciting testimony from NSA officials who were interviewed off camera. This technique of presenting information is somewhat problematic in that it doesn’t have the credibility and integrity of a straightforward interview, although Gibney is completely transparent about what he’s doing.

Bottom Line: Although it is not his best work, Zero Days is another successful documentary film from Alex Gibney. Zero Days presents us with some very frightening implications about the future of warfare and the film brings some clarity to a nebulous issue.

Episode: #608 (August 21, 2016)