We’re doomed. At least that’s the feeling I get every time director Alex Gibney releases a new film, and with good reason. The meticulous documentarian behind the Oscar-winning, Bush/Cheney “extraordinary rendition” exposé Taxi to the Dark Side and last year’s cult creep-out Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief makes other socially conscious filmmakers – Nick Broomfield, Michael Moore – seem like amateurs in comparison. His films reveal more about our country and the world we live in than we, the audience, may actually want to believe, but quoth the Mulder, “The truth is out there,” and it’s almost always deeply, disturbingly unpleasant.
Zero Days manages to be breathtaking in its delivery and execution as it explores and explains the profound ramifications arising from an allegedly errant bit of computer malware that was discovered by security experts in 2010 (or thereabouts; multiple White Hatters made different discoveries at different times before pooling their knowledge). Except the worm was anything but random. By far the most complex piece of malicious computer code known at that time, the Stuxnet virus ended up infecting millions of Microsoft Windows-running PCs worldwide, but more to the point, it aimed its destructive payload at, of all things, the little black boxes that controlled the centrifuges Iran was using to enrich uranium at its Natanz nuclear facility. Stuxnet was no ordinary bug, it was an act of war, the first sneaky broadside in a looming global cyber conflict.
Revealing the culprits has proven tricky, as Gibney’s film repeatedly notes. Stuxnet remains so classified here in America that the many government officials interviewed can’t even mention its name. Zero Days’ political bombshell – one that’s already been accepted as truth, more or less, by many key players in the international cyber-security field – is that the worm was created by the NSA and Israel, working together, for the express purpose of sabotaging Iran’s nuclear ambitions without firing a shot. This launched a brand new kind of war tech, with zero parameters, no rules, and the potential for real-world lethality, the inherent implication being that if the good guys have it, it’s only a matter of time before the bad guys have it, too.
Zero Days handily pulls off the difficult task of making the infinitely complex yet nascent world of cyber warfare understandable to the layman, and visually speaking, it’s a trip, mixing Matrix-y graphics with rapid-fire, globe-hopping interviews, news footage, and the like. Anything but dull, Gibney’s clarion call whipsaws along like a combo Jason Bourne/007 thriller minus all that running. Unnerving and likely to give viewers some bitter food for thought, Zero Days is Gibney’s most important work yet.
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