Remember when the United States and Israel used a computer virus to blow up Iranian nuclear infrastructure? If you’re like me, this story rings a bell, but in that hazy, half-forgotten, did-that-really-happen sort of way. These are the kinds of stories that have a tendency to get flushed down the memory hole, buried under layers of official denials, obfuscation, and abstruse technical detail. The American and Israeli governments still disavow any involvement in cyberattacks on Iranian centrifuges, but their denials come in that unbearably smug wink-wink-nudge-nudge tone of voice that lets us know (1) it all really happened, (2) they know we know it happened, and (3) they don’t owe us any explanations.
Thanks go to director Alex Gibney for resurrecting this bizarre and exciting story and using his status as one of America’s foremost documentarians to thrust this topic, which dovetails with a number of urgent issues including cyberwarfare, secrecy, digital infrastructure, and nuclear weapons, back into mainstream consciousness. Gibney’s documentary “Zero Days,” which kicked off this year’s AFI Docs festival in Washington, DC, is, at least for the first two-thirds of its somewhat overloaded 116-minute runtime, a cracking techno-thriller, a 21st-century “All the President’s Men” with Symantec anti-malware engineers Eric Chien and Liam O’Murchu standing in for Woodward and Bernstein.
Chien and O’Murchu are cast as the unlikely heroes of Gibney’s stories, a couple of malware investigators who stumble into a massive government plot to throw a massive digital monkey wrench into Iran’s nuclear program. By focusing on the thrill of the investigation and its improbable geopolitical implications, Gibney has crafted a remarkably compelling narrative out of a highly technical and easily confusing subject. Gibney’s ability to make the technical details of Stuxnet legible, and even compelling, should not be underrated, and he uses every trick in the techno-thriller arsenal—from a pulsing electronic score (by Fall on Your Sword) to that digital-encryption font you always see in movies like “13 Hours” and “Zero Dark Thirty.” There are also explosions, world leaders, globe-trotting datelines, techno-speak, and shadowy CoveOps, all lending “Zero Days” the look and feel of a contemporary action movie.
The film even features a cyborg! Sort of. In order to disguise the identity of his informants at the NSA, Gibney has devised a character that blends a human woman with biodata visualizations, creating a burbling, digitally-animated replicant gone haywire. Questioning its own programming, she begins to turn against her deep-state masters.
Gibney risks going over the top with all of this stuff—at one point, he treats a balloon popping like it’s the A-Bomb—but, given the subject matter, it works. As Chieng points, the idea that a virus could cause massive real-world damage, while theoretically possible, has always been primarily a Hollywood invention. But with Stuxnet, it really happened. The U.S. government found a way to weaponized malware, and if the U.S. government has begun to imitate action movies, maybe it takes an action movie to make sense of government action.
In fact, “Zero Days” is at its best when its in action-movie mode, but, in its final stretch, as Gibney clambers around for an ultimate takeaway, the movie loses considerable steam. This story naturally touches on a number of important themes, and Gibney seems at pains to draw them all out, leading to a cluttered and laborious last half hour that broaches nuclear disarmament, Obama’s war on whistleblowers, government overclassification, U.S.-Israeli relations, U.S.-Iranian relation, and more. It’s too much and not enough, bringing up a number of questions the movie cannot fully explore. The feeling most audiences will be left with is one of absolute terror. Rightly or wrongly, “Zero Days” ends on a note of fear-mongering that cyberwarfare is an imminent threat for which we have no strategy and no defenses. In Gibney’s telling, cyberweapons, if they continue to develop apace, could take out practically the entire infrastructure of the United States. The name of NSA’s next operation, with its desperate air of omnipotent badassery, says it all: Nitro Zeus.
If Gibney’s film is right, I know not with what weapons World War IV will be fought, but World War III will be fought with malware.