Feeling paranoid? Worried that you may wake up one morning, log into your computer and realize you’ve been hacked? Not just hacked but your life has been gutted. Every secret ever put on your computer has been simultaneously destroyed and made public? Stripped naked and left out on the corner of a busy street. Ever felt that? No? Watch “Zero Days” and those thoughts dance in your head like Arthur Murray. Alex Gibney’s straight-forward documentary will scare you straight. If you think your credit score or bank account are in danger, you are worrying about the wrong thing.
Most people are moderately aware of malware and the damage it can do to their computer. “Zero Days” is the film that lays the seedy underbelly of the internet’s dark side bare for all to see. And be terrified by too. Being connected digitally to the rest of the world is a matter of fact for anyone with a laptop, a tablet, a cellphone or a desktop. This film looks at what happens when a piece of malware so sophisticated that geniuses are baffled by its complexity. Back in the 50s, there were scores of films that acted as allegories for the Red Scare, the threat of nuclear war, the end of the world. “Zero Days” is a lot like that. Only it isn’t an allegory. And it is not fiction.
Clocking in at just under two hours, the film is a whole lot of talking heads from around the world discussing the true story of a cyber attack against a nuclear power plant in Iran, where the centrifuges that process uranium were programmed to explode. The worm released to destroy a nuclear plant breaks loose and begins infecting computers around the world. A pair of cybersecurity specialists, Eric Chien and Liam O’Murchu from Symantec Research Labs do their best to cut through the nerd-speak and explain exactly how screwed all of us collectively are due to the virus. The film alludes that the virus was jointly written by the United States and Israel, but nobody on camera will confirm it as fact. There is an entire section of the film with high level political types busy not saying anything. The virus is called Stuxnet or Olympic Games (later to be revealed as part of a broader plan known as Nitro Zeus, which was designed to disable Iran’s infrastructure).
Names pop up like Condoleezza Rice, George W. Bush and plans and plots fly by fast and hit the psyche hard.It is difficult to sit through “Zero Days” without feeling unsettled. A low, ominous music is always playing just below the dialogue. The camera locks in on faces of people talking in clipped, dark words. All of which builds upon itself into a crescendo of doomsday worries and political consequences in the Middle East that echo throughout the planet.
New York Times reporter David E. Sanger calmly speaks to the camera, framing the development of cyberwarfare into a broader perspective and into a context of a race between nations to get the upperhand. In Gibney’s hands, “Zero Days” – now playing at Ken Cinema – pushes the limits of documentary film-making without falling into sensationalism. The subject is sensational enough. It takes an even hand to make a film about smart guys sounding like we are doomed into a watchable whole, but Gibney pulls it off.