In cinema, the lives and deeds of computer hackers are shaded almost entirely through outdated tropes; they’re usually trench-coat-totting wiz kids chugging energy drinks as they fat-finger commands into flickering green terminals. And in the documentary Zero Days, ominous computer code flashes red across the screen as self-proclaimed hackers with masked voices explain its dark complexities. Director Alex Gibney, then, embraces the well-worn clichés of the espionage thriller, only they don’t bring a hint of levity to the proceedings. Like much of the filmmaker’s earlier work, Zero Days remains as serious as a heart attack and every bit as grim.
What begins as a straightforward profile of Stuxnet, the most intricate virus the security community has seen, quickly branches out into geopolitics, ethics, and the evolving nature of warfare. Since all available evidence indicates Stuxnet was created in a joint operation between the U.S. and Israel against the Iranian nuclear program, such a multifaceted approach is arguably warranted. And the talking heads that Gibney rounded up—security experts, former agency heads, even a smattering of active Mossad and NSA employees—do a thorough job of placing all the blame on their various employers. Watching these myriad figures speechify, rationalize, and openly contradict one another can be engaging, especially as the breadth of the operation begins to slowly reveal itself—sometimes thanks to an unwitting subject.
When Gibney lets the story of Stuxnet tell itself, the result is immensely watchable, powered by incisive questioning, alacritous cross-cutting between disparate subjects, and a relentless pace. Considering Stuxnet’s origin as an espionage project, complete with its own vaguely menacing codename, “Operation Olympic Games,” the filmmaker’s decision to structure and pace the doc like a bog-standard spy thriller isn’t entirely without merit. After all, the plan itself is only a stone’s throw away from the realm of Bond and Bauer: a virus that, once transmitted by way of a USB stick, causes industrial centrifuges to spin so fast as to destroy themselves, thus slowing the inevitable ascent of Iran as a nuclear power. Still, as the revelations mount and the locus of interest shifts again and again, Zero Days’s pulse-pounding propulsion begins to feel at odds with its subject matter.
In a spy thriller, the best laid plans of mice and men almost never go awry, at least not with the interference of certain debonair agents. And while these masterminds’ machinations may be far-fetched, they’re usually simple enough to articulate in a 30-second monologue, usually just before said debonair agent manages to gum up the works. In the real world, however, schemes like Stuxnet often unravel from the inside out, undercut by internal disagreement, muddy diplomacy, and sometimes even naked incompetence.
In adopting the visual vocabulary of the fictive and ridiculous, Gibney does this vital material a disservice, giving it an air of deflated pomposity. Patches of code float through empty black space as the music swells and swoons. Besuited experts with tired eyes and furrowed brows expound furiously on the threat of the impending cyberwar. The documentarian’s own phenomenally overwrought voiceovers read like something out of one of Raymond Chandler’s drunken stupors, a la The Lost Weekend: “Homeland Security had no idea that the cyber-threat they were battling was created by the U.S.’s own agency. We had found the enemy, and he was us.”
While too-clever clunkers such as these are ostensibly meant to highlight the tragic seriousness of the situation Gibney is exposing, they’re more likely to bring Ian Fleming than Errol Morris to mind. Though a bit of artistic license is certainly warranted with a story of this magnitude, when it comes to the possibility of an actual nuclear war at this late date, perhaps it’s time to resign flickering green terminals to the history books.