I do not know how the Third World War will be fought, but I can tell you what they will use in the Fourth—rocks!—Albert Einstein
When Einstein provided that quote in 1949—to Alfred Werner for Liberal Judaism 16—he was most likely thinking of nuclear weapons and the idea of mutually assured destruction. But Einstein is right whether or not nukes are used in the next war, for we have developed another technology, one that can send our enemy back to the dark ages simply by flipping a power switch.
That switch is part of a computer virus known as Stuxnet, the main focus of prolific documentarian Alex Gibney’s latest, Zero Days. In hacking terminology, zero-days refers to the computer software vulnerability between the known threat (the virus) and the security patch (the cure). Gibney uses the term rather alarmingly: the threat is already out there, and we have no known cure for it. Every day is zero-day.
That paranoia carries through the entirety of the documentary, which Gibney almost tips into full-blown tin foil hat conspiracy theory. Many of the subjects he interviews refuse to answer certain questions—mainly, how aware was the U.S. in the use of Stuxnet—and their lack of openness further fuels Gibney’s fear. It is important to note that while Gibney finds different subjects willing to agree with him and take his side, Gibney is Zero Days’ primary character. His fear, his paranoia, and his disbelief at this system drive the movie forward.
And while that paranoia can be engaging, it can also be dulling. Gibney picks at the Stuxnet wound until it bleeds all over him and then blames the blood for being red. He feels lied to and deceived, and maybe he was, but is that enough to hang a movie on?
Gibney utilizes multiple techniques to tell his story with the greatest number of layers possible to make it visually stimulating. Archival footage, talking heads interviews, voice-over narration, digital imagery of what cyberspace looks like, and reenactments. Most interview subjects appear on camera unaltered, but they heavily censor themselves. More than one interviewee refuses to appear on camera for fear of criminal charges, and Gibney finds a way to give them a voice. The technique works, but it also cheapens Gibney’s overall aim. It lacks credibility and transparency. Which, oddly enough, is what Gibney is demanding from his government.
Those who wish to talk, but are afraid to, lend their voices to a conglomerate that sounds like something out of a Bourne movie. Or any espionage films. They want to frighten people out of complacency, but they fail to offer a satisfying resolution. Instead, they just get frustrated. If a beer, or a Twitter hashtag, was readily handy, I’m sure one of them would have screamed, “Wake up sheeple!”
And that cry seems to be Gibney’s biggest discovery with Stuxnet and cyber warfare in general. In the end, Zero Days is at best a conspiracy theory, and at worse, just another bogeyman for people to worry about. It may be important to talk about these things, but it’s even more important to have something to say.
Zero Days (2016)
Written and Directed by: Alex Gibney
Produced by: Alex Gibney, Olga Kuchmenko, Marc Shmuger
Magnolia Pictures, Rated PG-13, Running time 116 minutes, Opens July 8, 2016