In Review

Zero Days

5 out of 5 stars
5 out of 5 stars - 'Outstanding - Starkie!'
Directed and written by Alex Gibney
Starring David Sanger, Emad Kiyaei, Eric Chien
Documentary, USA, 1hr 56min
Review by Jeanne Powell

For centuries there have been rules about the conduct of war, as well as rules of engagement for battles between armies and navies, between indigenous warrior nations on horseback, and even for the initial existence of flying machines during the first world war.

In 1864 with the first Geneva Convention, the rules of war began to transcend individual engagements and cultural traditions, and became international. Shortly after World War II ended, the various Geneva Conventions were made official and were adopted by dozens of nations. Rules became official and were recognized on some level by most nations. Until now. Zero Days takes us into this terrifying new world with subtle intensity.

Zero Days, directed by Alex Gibney, is a thriller about warfare in the cyber world. You may recall Stuxnet, a self-replicating worm malware unleashed by two western-identified countries to frustrate Iranian nuclear scientists. Stuxnet went far beyond its intended target in Iran, and this documentary tells the incredible story of how it happened and what it means for all of us.

Gibney has been called the most important documentarian of our time (Esquire magazine). He has received an Oscar, Emmy, Grammy, Peabody and Dupont-Columbia awards for his “cinematic, gripping and insightful documentaries.”

Yes there are talking heads in this film, but those who were able to go on record about Stuxnet without fear of death or imprisonment have done so, with stunning news for the rest of us. Interviewees who must maintain anonymity are disguised via image and voice alteration. And the experts explain in word and image so that we can understand. As you watch this documentary, prepare to be transported, just as you were with Inside Job narrated by Matt Damon in 2010.

Besides interviews with Israeli and American officials, a few of whom are in disguise, there are interviews with cyber security specialists and computer sleuths, both military and civilian. Two stories unfold here: mysteries surrounding the new supervirus – Stuxnet — and the origins of Iranian nationalism which led to its nuclear program in the first place. Stunning is the only word to describe it all. Those who think they know the whole story need to see this documentary.

Remember how Iran had a stable government, legally elected? Recall how the U.S. overthrew that government and installed the Shah during the Cold War? Recall how we gave nuclear capacity to the Shah? And recall who came into power when his excesses brought about his overthrow?

In milliseconds, these new weapons have the capacity to shut down or destroy infrastructure from any distance…

Now think about our western capacity to develop software to an extent which was only science fiction a few years ago. And trace the changing political climates in the U.S. and the Middle East, as Iran continued to create its own infuriating path, even after the U.S. threw millions of dollars into a regional war between Iran and Iraq.

The challenge for director Alex Gibney is that the so-called Stuxnet virus is so tightly classified that not one official representative of the U.S. or Israel will go on record that it exists. However, the nature of their variously worded denials and eye-rolling gives credence in its own way. Gibney tracks the Stuxnet story from the moment when the malware is discovered and follows it across the globe, while cyber-detectives, journalists and U.S. Homeland Security race to decipher the most complex virus ever encountered.

Yes, that’s right, Homeland Security. You see, the NSA and CIA never told Homeland Security the virus existed or about its origins.

Why does Stuxnet matter, and why do we care that two governments most closely associated with it continue to deny its existence? We care because the launching of Stuxnet is the first known attack in which computer malware leaves the realm of cyberspace and causes physical destruction.

WATCH: ZERO DAYS Official Trailer

Thanks to various whistleblowers, a few high echelon players in the U.S. and Israeli secret services, journalists, and software analysts, Zero Days is able to provide new information about cyber weapons programs. In milliseconds, these new weapons have the capacity to shut down or destroy infrastructure from any distance and without the targeted city or nation knowing who is responsible.

Unlike conventional warfare, chemical warfare, and biological weapons, there are no rules of engagement for cyber weapons. Think about it. And see this documentary to understand why it matters.

Jeanne Powell
Jeanne is a published poet and essayist. She holds degrees from Wayne State University and the University of San Francisco. Jeanne has taught in the CS, UB and OLLI programs at universities in the City. Her books in print include MY OWN SILENCE and WORD DANCING from Taurean Horn Press.