Film Review: “Zero Days” — Be Afraid. Be Very Afraid.

Alex Gibney’s powerful documentary looks closely at some recent examples of malware designed to wreak havoc worldwide.

Zero Days, directed by Alex Gibney. At the Kendall Square Cinema, Cambridge, MA


By Peg Aloi

It seems like most of us don’t know a whole lot about how computers work. We use them, of course. We may even learn a bit of html or trouble-shooting. But malware, security, viruses, hacking? Mostly we rely on what our friends who work in IT have to say, or the hive mind on Facebook, or the latest article from some nerdy website. This new film by Alex Gibney looks closely at some recent examples of malware designed to wreak havoc worldwide.

Gibney has made a number of award-winning documentary films exploring modern life’s obsessions run amok, including Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief (2015), Casino Jack and the United States of Money (2010), and We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks (2013). In Zero Days, the filmmaker examines the word of cyberwar, a realm mostly traversed by super-geeky and super-brilliant hackers and analysts. Gibney’s mode of discourse focuses more on interviews with talking heads than creating an unfolding narrative, but he goes to great lengths to speak to a wide array of experts around the world. The resulting font of information is impressive, often overwhelming.

Gibney’s film begins by focusing on Stuxnet, a nasty piece of malware that first came out of Belarus a few years ago: it was enormously damaging, to the point that conversations about it among government officials were classified. Stuxnet utitlized something called a “zero day exploit” (bear with me as I try to explain concepts I know very little about), which is a piece of computer code that can proliferate with no activity or effort (no downloading, no clicking). Because there is no way to avoid it or means to defend a system from it, there are “zero days’” of protection against it. Detecting Stuxnet’s purpose took months longer than most malware because of its size and complexity. Gibney interviews many international computer scientists and hackers who studied Stuxnet intensely.

These experts explain the connection between computer malware attacks and other frightening events (such as the multiple gasline explosions occurring in Iran in 2010). In doing some research on this issue (not an easy thing since so much of the language is very dense and specific), I found that this was not a widespread news story at the time. Rumors had circulated about the development of Stuxnet as a way of disarming Iran’s budding nuclear program — nearly a fifth of their nuclear centrifuges were destroyed by cyberattacks. Among other disturbing revelations, we learn that the malware, despite suggestions it had originates in Eastern Europe, was (apparently) a join invention of the American and Israeli governments. Which, of course, may not come as much of a surprise. The upper echelon of computer hacking is dominated by Europeans (especially German and Dutch hackers), but the juggernauts these schemers try hardest to subdue are usually the world’s largest, or at least most ambitious, military powers. We learn that “Stuxnet” was a term only the European anti-virus hackers used. The military called it “Olympic Games.”

Gibney then delves into the world of weapons programming, a growing arm of the military industrial complex. Research focuses on testing enemy weapons and then designing systems to defeat them. Much of this work is done by the NSA, which is described as a super geeky work environment. Because of the high level of security surrounding cyberwar tactics, many of the people interviewed have their faces or voices disguised, often in aurally and visually compelling ways. Gibney begins to unravel some of the underlying issues surrounding the US invasion of Iraq and the potential for engagement in Iran. One scene is described where shards of a nuclear centrifuge are brought to the situation room so they can be physically handled by then-president George W. Bush. President Obama’s administration is also implicated in this growing mosaic of…what? Terror? Technology?

Viewers who know that computers have irrevocably altered civilization (in various ways that we have yet to make sense of) may not find much here to be shocking. For me, what’s most disturbing about  Zero Days boils down to two implications. First: the normalization of using computers for warfare. That  means warfare is no longer the hand-to-hand melee of days gone by, when enemies looked one another in the eye. We now have to deal with the potential of vast and (perhaps) inescapable combat purveyed by weapons that are capable of unimaginable chaos. Second: the normalization of government-engineered computer viruses and malware dedicated to taking down rogue states. Of course, today’s rogue state may be tomorrow’s ally and vise versa. No doubt knowledge about how to trigger an apocalyptic meltdown via a keyboard will get around. As for the future of civilization, at the moment an awful lot of people seem preoccupied with Pokemon Go.

Peg Aloi is a former film critic for The Boston Phoenix. She has taught film studies for a number of years at Emerson College and is currently teaching media studies at SUNY New Paltz. Her reviews have appeared in Art New England and Cinefantastique Online, and she writes a media blog for called The Witching Hour.

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