It’s remarkable how Gibney packs complex, jargon-heavy ideas into a neat package.
In 1995, The Net terrified a very young me as I bared witness to what this horrible thing called “the Internet” could do to people. To say technology has come a long way since Sandra Bullock first ordered a pizza via computer is an understatement. But has the internet become any safer? Director Alex Gibney’s Zero Days gives an emphatic “No,” going so far as to say the capabilities of modern technology and its ease of use has only made terrorist attacks easier to pull off, we just haven’t seen proper implementation…yet.
Around 2010, a mystery virus known as Stuxnet started infecting Iranian computers connected to their nuclear reactor program. Shrouded in secrecy, the Stuxnet virus is theorized to have been created by the U.S. and Israel, the first in a cyberterrorist war that could signal more widespread destruction.
The Stuxnet virus is probably the greatest digital heist in history. And yet it’s doubtful most Americans had ever heard of it as it went mad online. The living embodiment of the phrase, “big things come in small packages,” Stuxnet’s was a dense, sophisticated code that allowed it to be 20 times the size of the average virus, with no internal bugs. The “zero day” is known as the unknown payload only the creator could exploit with little more than a flash drive. So when this James Bond super-virus was discovered, no one actually knew what it could do or when.
To his credit, it’s remarkable how Gibney packs complex, jargon-heavy ideas into a neat package, almost a Stuxnet itself. Zero Days bears no small resemblance to the fantastic documentary from last year, The Russian Woodpecker, that explored an internal cover-up by the Soviet government. In this case, those who stumbled upon Stuxnet were flummoxed as to what it was, yet heard the word “classified” at every turn.
This air of secrecy was distressing because, as it was soon determined, Stuxnet “required the resources of a nation state” like the United States. From there Gibney’s documentary looks at our own place in the world of cyberterrorism and its implications. If something so little can hack into Iran’s nuclear arsenal and cause it to self-destruct, what’s to stop one country from leveling the infrastructure of another? Ultimately, a simple virus has the power to “disrupt, destroy and degrade” an entire country. In Gibney’s world, wars won’t be fought on land, but rather by crippling a country’s electrical grid or shooting off nukes with a few lines of code.
The Stuxnet virus’ convenient expiration date coincided with the election of President Obama, yet the project continued with his knowledge. Like the snake eating its own tail, the U.S. ended up infected with a form of Stuxnet. But because of all the secrecy, the FBI and CIA had no clue what it was.
Gibney’s theories aren’t new, but the Stuxnet story provides actual facts and proof of both the power of cyberterrorism and our own hypocritical use of it. Though these two have much in common, it takes a while for one to segue into another, so time is spent with the audience asking, “What’s Gibney’s point?” The impact works best with words, not images. Gibney can be a tad ham-fisted, relying on typical technological images like a full screen of 1s and 0s, as well as stock footage of nuclear war to prove the consequences.
One use of technology that benefits overall is the pixelated rendering of a CIA mole. Aided by voice-over from Joanne Tucker, these sequences let us hear from several confidential sources under the shadow of anonymity. There is also some unintentional humor at one of the talking heads finding no better way to describe something than by using “thingies.” (Hey, with all the doom and gloom I had to find something to smile at.)
Gibney’s documentaries are all fairly routine, if not horrifying in their subject matter. Zero Days has trouble executing its own payload quickly, free of slick imagery overused in other narrative portrayals of the hacker world. But its message still stands and is worth listening to.