The Culture Movies

Documentary 'Zero Days' is more frightening than anything Hollywood could come up with

'Days,' which takes its name from a computer security flaw, is about the brave new world of cyberwarfare. It's directed by Alex Gibney of 'We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks.'

This image released by Magnolia Pictures shows a scene from the documentary 'Zero Days.'
Magnolia Pictures/AP
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( PG-13 )
  • Peter Rainer
    Film critic

The alarmingly prolific Alex Gibney – in just the past year or so he’s made documentaries on Scientology, Steve Jobs, and Frank Sinatra – has made a movie more frightening than anything the heebie-jeebie Hollywood experts could ever come up with. “Zero Days,” which takes its name from a computer security flaw, is about the brave new world of cyberwarfare.

The film’s starting point is the self-replicating Stuxnet malware, first discovered by an antivirus company in Belarus. It targeted Iranian nuclear facilities and was almost certainly invented by U.S. intelligence agencies and Israel’s Mossad. One of the reasons we know this is because documents related to Stuxnet ended up on Wikileaks, about which Gibney made the movie “We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks.”

In “Zero Days,” he interviews at length New York Times correspondent David Sanger, who fills in much relevant detail. He also speaks with many high-level experts, including Michael Hayden, former head of the NSA and CIA, and Richard Clarke, counterterrorism adviser to three former presidents, all of whom are conversant in cyberespionage without admitting to anything. But he does get a woman from within the U.S. Cyber Command to spill at least some of the beans, although there’s a surprise I won’t reveal attached to her participation. One of her purported revelations: the Obama administration’s deal to limit Iran’s nuclear capability was covertly bolstered by Washington’s ability to annihilate that country’s cyberinfrastructure.

Gibney attempts to use Stuxnet as the latchkey – the worm, if you like – into the larger issue of worldwide government transparency in an age when cyberwarfare, unlike, say, nuclear, chemical, or biological warfare, is entirely without limits or treaties. (Not that those treaties that are in place for those types of warfare are routinely obeyed.) How would international law even operate in the cyber realm? By necessity, far more questions than answers are raised in “Zero Days.” All of the questions and answers are troubling. Grade: B+ (Rated PG-13 for some strong language.)