The intelligence community called it “Operation Olympic Games.” Antivirus experts called it Stuxnet, an amalgamation of several keywords found in its code. The Iranian government called it a blatant act of sabotage. A piece of malware software with an unusual precision and an insanely dangerous payload, this worm had been on the radar of computer network security folks before an attack on Natanz nuclear facility in Iran in September of 2010 would make it a viral superstar. Soon, allegations that the U.S. and Israeli governments had jointly developed Stuxnet as a weapon aimed at nipping the nation’s burgeoning nuclear program in the bud began to spread. No one has ever confirmed anything regarding its origin, but that didn’t matter. The first shot in what’s now turned into an all-out battle taking place in the cyberworld — one that would have far-reaching and fatal repercussions in the real world — had been fired.
At its best, Alex Gibney’s history lesson on how we’ve entered the age of cyberwarfare works as a thorough primer for what one talking head calls “a revolution in the threat landscape.” An incredibly prolific documentarian and a virtual vérité industry unto himself, he generally tends to favor two types of projects: profiles of flawed famous men (everyone from Jack Abramoff to James Brown); and institutional takedowns ranging from Scientology and Enron to the U.S. government’s Torture Industrial Complex (in what’s still his best work, 2007’s Taxi to the Dark Side). This new movie hews closer to the latter category, methodically retracing steps back to the Johnson/Nixon administrations and gathering character witnesses — New York Times reporter David Stranger, WMD czar Gary Samore, security expert and worm-discoverer Sergey Ulasen — in order to detail the who, what, where and crucial why of this bold new battlefield. Unlike many of his other movies, it’s not an outright indictment — the closest it comes to advocacy is underlining that there are no cyberparallels to the nuclear, biological and chemical warfare controls currently in place — so much as a well-vetted wake-up call. We have seen the enemy, and it’s written in PHP code.
At its worst, however, Zero Days suffers from the same faults that often plague Gibney’s work, notably a tendency to employ questionable aesthetic choices and an unfortunate (and gratuitous) need to make things personal. It’s one thing to take testimony from anonymous finger-pointing, whistle-blowing NSA insiders and Max Headroom-animate an actress reading such damning evidence; he pulled a somewhat similar live-or-Memorex sleight of hand in his 2010 Eliot Spitzer doc Client 9. It’s a whole other thing to kick off such a gambit with a whiny voiceover (“This was really beginning to piss me off”) after a montage of “No comment” snippets. Why would you want to reduce an investigative deep-dive into a something like a snotty temper tantrum in one fell swoop?
And once you’ve seen a cameraman “creep” up on Gibney while he’s Skyping — look out behind you, Alex! — well, all of those Dateline-dull scenes of people in armchairs talking into cameras don’t seem quite so bad. You’ll walk out knowing a hell of a lot more about this subject than when you walked in. But such moments undermine the rigor of his, and the film’s, reportage. Zero Days is consistently under attack from little stylistic worms that threaten to turn an otherwise solid doc on the evil that 21st-century hackers do into a hack job. Stronger security measures are needed.