Zero Days (2016) / Documentary

MPAA Rated: PG-13 for some strong language
Running Time: 116 min.

Cast: Richard A. Clarke
Director: Alex Gibney
Screenplay: Alex Gibney

Review published July 18, 2016

Prolific documentarian Alex Gibney (Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine, Going Clear) continues his roll of crafting some of the most intriguing and topical films in recent years with Zero Days, this time taking a look at a new and different kind of international warfare.  It's not one fought with bullets or bombs, but with computer scripts, some so potent that they can infect a device, stop production in a factory, and perhaps, if one were powerful enough, take down a massive power grid that could end up costing billions of dollars to the country it is inflicted upon.

Zero Days concentrates on one such script, a massively sophisticated cyber weapon that was later dubbed the Stuxnet virus.  This is a virus that had been created to wreak havoc on nuclear systems in Iran, a program so clever and deliberate that security experts concluded it could only have come from a nation state rather than an individual -- a nation that had reason to want to put a wrench on the Iranian plans for nuclear expansion but mucking about with machines that control the failure of their delicately balanced centrifuges.  Several nations could have been the culprits, but no one has come out to claim being the author or proliferator of such a virus.  However, Gibney, through a variety of sources, some on the record (barely) and others only agreeing on the condition of total anonymity, builds a strong case that Iran's greatest enemies were orchestrating this for political purposes.

Stuxnet had been meant to stay hidden, which it had been for years, until revisions made it increasingly more powerful, and eventually unable to be stopped, even infecting computers from the virus's source of origin, leaving everywhere vulnerable.  Through a series talking head interviews involving high-level security professionals and those deeply involved with government intelligence agencies under the Bush and Obama administrations, as well as illustrative use of well-rendered computer graphics, Gibney sets the table on the events that led to the discovery of the virus, what the malicious program was intended to do, how it was implemented and why, who was likely behind its creation, and how world politics has forever changed now that the weapon has been discovered. 

Though the subject is touchy enough to make even former heads of the CIA and NSA curb their candor, some due to the classified nature of the information and others due to fear of repercussions, what can be said by the experts who agreed to sit-down interviews is certainly alarming, and we're not even told close to all of the story. There's no Edward Snowden-type whistleblower to shake the foundations of national security, but the film does approximate one through the use of a computer-generated talking head played by an actress who reads off answers from an amalgamated series of answers given from anonymous sources within the NSA who agreed to talk off of the record.

Gibney should get credit for taking such an immensely complex topic that few in the viewing audience has known about, much less can comprehend, and make it very enlightening, understandable, and often suspenseful, like a gripping techno-thriller, except one based on real-world events.  The film is methodical in its approach, but careful to not skip steps along the way as to the scope of the story, eventually drawing out a blistering expose that plays out like a two-hour segment of TV's "60 Minutes" in its alarming reveals.  The documentary makes a disquieting case that suggests that cyber warfare, if it is the future of how governments attack one another, could truly be more devastating than any attack by land, air or sea.

Not everyone will be in tune with Zero Days, which doles out technical information by the dollop when other docs might do it by the drop.  Those who don't really know about computer networks, much less viruses, will be lost from the vast amount of information the film contains about the subjects (though I'd say with good certainty, this does not apply to anyone reading this, given you've successfully been able to navigate the internet to find it). You probably have to have a strong interest in technology and/or political science to appreciate the full magnitude of the importance of the topic, though the disruptive effects of the viral warfare affects every single man, woman and child on the planet in terms of potentially devastating effects of use and abuse.  It's a eerily grim but intensely haunting documentary that's a must-see for anyone that cares at all what's going on in the increasingly vulnerable world today, and onward into the ever-so-bleaker geopolitical Earth of tomorrow.

Qwipster's rating:

2016 Vince Leo