Film Reviews

Review: ‘Zero Days’

Alex Gibney’s latest doc is nerve-wracking and vital.

An NSA source from Zero Days, a Magnolia Pictures release.
Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures


Zero Days
(USA, 116 min.)
Dir. Alex Gibney

Alex Gibney’s Zero Days puts audiences in contact with a dangerous virus infiltrating the free world. Don’t stock up on Kleenex, Purell, and Echinacea just yet, though. The virus that Gibney tackles is an invisible contagion with few signs or symptoms. Be very afraid.

The virus in question is cyber warfare. It’s a stream colloquially known as STUXNET. Gibney presents a gaggle of talking heads who describe a sophisticated virus that confounds even the most skillful of coders. At 20 times the size of the average strain of malware, the script for this virus is no ordinary bug cooked up in the labs of hacktivists or basement-dwelling cyber geeks. It’s the stuff that may have been made as a government concoction. Gibney’s computer experts explain that their assessments of the strain’s density invites a process of elimination that leaves national organisations in the USA, Britain, Russia, and a few other superpowers among the possible manufacturers. Zero Days asserts that the world is under siege by an outbreak of state-made cyber-terrorism.

Gibney’s doc lays out some very complicated material in non-technical language as the talking heads examine a case that begins with the assassination of several Iranian nuclear scientists. These deaths inevitably smell of political foul play, but as the evidence points to computers, various security experts find themselves stumped by the virus that has been created. They eventually conclude that the bug they call STUXNET is a new kind of warfare manufactured by the United States of America with Israel’s participation in order to thwart Iranian research and development of nuclear arms. In the most exceptional case, Iranian nuclear power plants find themselves under attack by this extreme bug.

The doc explains the basic technical mechanics of a computer virus so that viewers who are less technically inclined than others may grasp the global threat. Zero Days outlines the virus’s capacity to tap into various sockets of society, like power grids. Rather than annihilate cities by dropping nuclear bombs, superpowers like the USA can theoretically cripple communities by infiltrating systems and shutting off electricity and knocking out clean water, hospital care, and other essential life forces. Similarly, the doc explains with concision the toxic political relationship between the USA, Israel, and Iran that makes this computer game so urgent.

Zero Days ultimately provides a necessary study into the massive and pervasive invisible threats to security as nation states become black-ops terrorists. The difference between nuclear weapons and other contemporary warfare versus computer viruses is that the former leave physical evidence. Something like STUXNET, however, leaves few clues and invites deniability. Imagine where the world would be if the elected leaders acted as if the tragedies at Hiroshima, Auschwitz, or the Twin Towers couldn’t be blamed on any nation.

Gibney gets a number of international figures to form a consensus on serious allegations about the threats to security that the American government has unleashed upon the world. Zero Days results from the filmmaker’s impressive access to subjects, his skills as an interviewer, and his dogged persistence in chasing down answers even if it’s simply to get one bureaucrat after another denying America’s involvement in the STUXNET virus. The doc navigates a complicated line between investigative documentary filmmaking and conspiracy theory yammering, but Gibney uses the elements of paranoia to the film’s advantage by cutting together relevant shards of interviews. The interviewees who stonewall Gibney are just as effective as the civilian programmers who speak openly about the joint international effort to unpack the STUXNET code.

Zero Days finds one brave voice to speak truth to power. Enter an anonymous female employee of the National Security Agency (NSA) who answers all of Gibney’s questions in full. She speaks under the veil of image scrambling to mask her identity via low-res animation. Appearing as a sort of virtual reality cipher, she confirms that the virus is a concoction of the American government and that the threats to security are real. All governments lie, indeed.

This secret source puts Zero Days straight into the territory of Laura Poitras’s Citizenfour as the government employee dishes the dirt à la Edward Snowden. The differences between Gibney’s doc and Poitras’s whistleblower film are the level of urgency in the speaker’s words, the freshness of the information she provides, and the overall level of filmmaking finesse that makes Zero Days so nerve-wracking and vital. Unlike Citizenfour, however, the key testimony of Zero Days is ultimately a bit of a cheat. (To say more would be to spoil too much.) The twist is mildly disappointing, but Gibney takes the film’s big reveal and extends the investigation into larger ongoing inquiries.

Zero Days uses the difficult task of getting people to speak on the record to argue that disclosure and access to information are essential to public safety. The fear is palpable in many cases and Gibney’s late-act reminder of the threats to whistleblowers in the USA validates their unwillingness to be forthcoming. If much of this state-sanctioned cyberterrorism is crawling through the web during the days of President Obama’s otherwise-progressive term, then the potential for catastrophe rises considerably with a hands-off government and a leader who lacks the intelligence, experience, and patience to control a weapon that can shut down essential resources with the flick of the switch. In other words, Zero Days foreshadows a very dark future under the reign of President-Elect Trump.

Zero Days screens as this month’s selection in the Doc Soup series at the Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema on Wed, Dec. 7 – Thurs, Dec. 8 with subject Eric Chien in attendance at all screenings.