FNE at Berlinale 2016: Zero Days

Written by
Alex Gibney Alex Gibney

BERLIN: Documentaries seems to be popping up ever more frequently in the main competitions of major A-list festivals and Berlin this year boasts two. Oscar-winning documentary maker Alex Gibney’s Zero Days and Gianfranco Rosi’s Fire at Sea are both in the main competition. 

Proving that truth is stranger than fiction Gibney’s tale of the phenomenon of Stuxnet, a self-replicating computer virus discovered in 2010 by international IT experts that was commissioned by the US and Israeli governments to sabotage Iran’s nuclear programme could be a plot for one of the Mission Impossible sequels or another leading role for Matt Damon or Michal Mann.

Gibney’s film looks at the development of cyberwarfare in general and it is scary stuff.

But it’s apparently all true. He hones in on the development of Stuxnet to illustrate his point. This complex computer worm intended to attach to the enemy target of Iran’s nuclear programme ended up spreading uncontrollably.  Stuxnet code-named Olympic Games is a malware that could paralyse the infrastructure of whole countries in a second.  It was meant to remain inside off-line Iranian computers used in the country’s nuclear programme.  But it escaped and apparently now lies dormant in computers throughout the world.

The prolific Gibney won the Oscar for Taxi to the Dark Side and has also recently churned out a string of successful docs including We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks, Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief, Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine and Sinatra: All or Nothing at All.  Unlike the slow metaphorical approach of Rosi who spent a year on the island of Lampedusa to create his Fire at Sea Gibney brings home his message with rapid fire interviews, graphics, experts and other proofs building his case in a convincing way.

One of the visual problems Zero Days struggles with is a lack of anything exciting to show on screen.  There are plenty of talking heads including members of the US intelligence community who mostly say that the answers to the questions Gibney is asking is classified or that they cannot talk about it.  In between we have lots of computer screens and graphics.  None of this is surprising given the subject matter Gibney is dealing with and he fills a lot of the gaps with a musical score that adds interest and pace to the story.

One interesting visual is an excerpt from a documentary made by Iranian State Television that re-enacts an attempt to assassinate two Iranian nuclear scientists in 2010 one of whom died and which the Iranians blame on the Mossad.

While a series of experts make a convincing case for both the origins of Struxnet and the dangerous nature of unaccountable cyberwarfare unsurprisingly hard cold proof is not easy to come by. Perhaps more deserving of condemnation are some of the figures at the top of the US security world.  Figures like Michael Hayden, former chief of both the NSA and the CIA, convict themselves in the public eye with their smug defence of the clearly indefensible.

The other major structural problem the film struggles with is the connection between Gibney’s micro story of Struxnet and his macro idea of the problems of excessive government secrecy and a lack of transparency that surrounds cyberwarfare. 

While still denied officially this story which should be sci-fi ends up documenting the dangers of uncontrolled political power. Gibney makes a strong point and brings to the public eye another issue that deserves to be brought out from the shadows.

Zero Days (USA)
Directed by Alex Gibney