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Berlin Review: The U.S. Is Knee-Deep In Cyber-Terrorism in Alex Gibney’s ‘Zero Days’

Berlin Review: The U.S. Is Knee-Deep In Cyber-Terrorism in Alex Gibney's 'Zero Days'

Will Alex Gibney ever run out of conspiracies and evildoing to expose? Of
course not, and there’s no better man for the job. With his new documentary “Zero
Days,” Gibney turns his tenacious, headline-friendly and extremely well-sourced
attentions to cyber war — that fanciful-sounding but very real, very dangerous
newcomer to the world of state malfeasance. While much his subject matter here is
already known, or suspected, he dramatizes it well enough to make me sleep a
little less well tonight. (Magnolia Pictures has acquired U.S. theatrical rights to “Zero Days,” and Showtime
plans to air the film later this year.)

The starting point, of the film and his trail, is the omnipotent computer virus
Stuxnet, first identified in 2010 when it wormed its way into and set back
Iran’s nuclear program, before running rampant through computer systems all
over the world. Stuxnet was more in keeping with cyber espionage than
terrorism, in that no-one was rushing to take responsibility, secrecy the
prevailing ethos. And for a time, Stuxnet was a mystery, conjuring images of
evil masterminds writing destructive code, for unknown though clearly nefarious
purposes; until, that is, computer security experts started following the code
and joining the dots.

And for its initial phase Gibney’s film plays exactly like a detective story,
led by two security analysts, Eric and Liam, an engaging pair who pored over
code more sophisticated than anything they’d ever seen. Michael Mann would
watch this and weep; where he turned similar material into his thriller “Blackhat
to tedious effect last year, cementing the notion that you simply couldn’t make
computer tech arresting on film, Gibney shows how it’s done, using real people
with a gift for making their world accessible, a driving soundtrack, an
restless array of talking heads, newsreel, and a decent graphic interpretation
of some of the ideas at play.

It’s pretty gripping, not least because we’re given a sense
of how hacking can affect the material world, sabotaging industrial systems, causing
palpable harm and disarray. A demonstration — using just a balloon — of how Stuxnet
could cause the chaos in Iran’s uranium enrichment plan is superbly simple, potent
and chilling.

Around this point Gibney switches to the who and the why,
and the film takes a different tack. It’s been clear where he’s been heading, the
culprits being not malware criminals but nation states. And while a succession
of talking heads trip out the “I can’t possibly comment” line too
many times (Gibney over-egging his intrepid image in this regard) all roads
lead to the U.S. and Israel, together conspiring to rid Iran of its potential for
nuclear threat.

Hereon history is combined with conspiracy theory, propped up
by investigative reporting, to chart the changing use of computer technology from
defense to offense and a new form of global warfare, with President Obama in
the thick of it, and Israel making life very difficult for its ally. For those becoming
inured to government conspiracy in the post-Snowdon world — and Gibney does
drag this out — the film offers a compensatory and piquant sideshow, involving the
querulous relationship between the super-power pushed too far, too quickly by
its aggressive smaller partner, the end result being that Stuxnet has shown the
way for an array of similar attacks on the U.S. itself.

The most telling of Gibney’s interviewees,
the only one prepared to spell out the ill deeds at work, is a whistle-blower
with a sting in the tail, appropriately concealed by computer generated
disguise. Other than her, the director has assembled journalists, computer
experts and former senior members of the security counterparts in both the U.S. and Israel, all pointing the finger in the same direction but few prepared to
confirm the thesis on the record. The most galling participant is Michael Hayden,
former chief of both the NSA and the CIA, who comes across as smugly happy with
the suggestion of his country’s dodgy dealings, and really ought to be in hiding after the allegations of another recent conspiracy-doc, “The Good American.”

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