As Robert Kenner’s “Command and Control” begins, transporting the viewer to September 1980 with the first of its detailed re-enactments, the Titan II Missile Complex in Damascus, Arkansas suggests the eeriness of a spaceship adrift. When two men—suited up as if entering orbit—proceed through a metallic green tunnel, their maintenance of the facility’s nine-megaton thermonuclear weapon goes terribly awry. (“Things just don’t work perfect all the time,” we hear in voiceover, in what may be the understatement of the year.) As gas fills the missile silo, threatening an explosion that could detonate the device, warning lights flash and sirens sound in the nearby control room: An emblem of “immense power,” author Eric Schlosser notes, “just on the verge of slipping out of our control.”
The same might be said of Stuxnet, the computer virus at the center of Alex Gibney’s “Zero Days.” Created by the United States and Israel (with an assist from British intelligence) to sabotage Iran’s nuclear capabilities, the malware—anonymous, powerful, and near flawless in its original form—raises broader questions about the protection of state secrets and the future of cyber war, which Gibney pursues with his usual tenacity. Alongside the release of Oliver Stone’s “Snowden,” not to mention the renewed attention to nuclear proliferation and cyber security in presidential politics, timely Oscar contenders “Command and Control” and “Zero Days”—their subjects separated by three decades—offer crucial explorations of the relationship between technology, security, and nuclear war. In both, the moment to debate the dangers of American might has long since passed.
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Based on Schlosser’s 2013 book about the near-disaster in Damascus, “Command and Control” recreates the night a nuclear weapon might have gone off in Middle America, wiping out Little Rock with it—but Kenner’s directorial insight is to pair suggestions of the potential devastation with the minute details at the heart of the threat. Diagrams of the Damascus complex render its architecture in the clearest possible terms; discussions of the maintenance team’s wearisome, 14-hour shifts and the jurisdictional confusion that plagued the military’s response drill down on the systemic reasons for “human error.” Painted in shades of “Vertigo” green, the re-enactments come to resemble a Hitchcockian nightmare: The most memorable image in the film might be the sight of a socket tumbling 70 feet, replayed again and again as if Kenner himself were desperate to go back and catch it.
The crisis this catalyzes, one of 32 official “broken arrows”—incidents that endangered the public—to confront the United States’ nuclear arsenal since World War II, is so chilling, in fact, because its cause was so mundane. “If the system worked properly,” Schlosser says near the end of “Command and Control,” “someone dropping a tool couldn’t send a nuclear warhead into a field.”
Interwoven with brief histories of the development and expansion of the U.S. nuclear weapons program, prior examples of nuclear catastrophes barely averted, and interviews with participants from all strata of the military hierarchy, “Command and Control” emerges as a taut portrait of a few frightening hours. “Zero Days,” by contrast, envisions a frightening future: “Stuxnet wasn’t just an evolution,” a source from the antivirus firm Symantec says at one point. “It was really a revolution in the threat landscape.”
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Though Gibney’s approach is, in some respects, more conventional—his conversations with figures from both the public and private sectors comprise much of the film—”Zero Days” is a remarkable feat of reporting, combining the vigor of the in-depth investigation with the simple power of the effective explanation.
Using lines of code, demonstrations, and animation, Gibney manages to make Stuxnet and its geopolitical stakes comprehensible to the layman, all while reconstructing a narrative with the cold thrill of the clandestine. His most pointed choices—a cut from a popped balloon to a mushroom cloud, or montages of archival footage that situate cyber warfare within the fraught context of U.S.-Iranian relations and the War on Terror—also build a potent argument for transparency. Until the government loosens its grip on classified information, no doctrine for the use of cyber weapons akin to the doctrine of nuclear deterrence and mutually assured destruction will ever fall into place.
Gibney’s most brilliant gambit, in this vein, amounts to the clever workaround of a reporter sitting on important information from anonymous sources. His interview with an employee of the National Security Agency, digitally altered to protect her identity, is among the more thrilling exchanges in recent nonfiction filmmaking, crisp and conspiratorial. As it turns out, the woman is an actress, relaying comments from NSA personnel who refused to go on camera, and if her presence exposes the relative clumsiness of talking heads not trained in the art of performance, it also pushes the boundaries of broadcast journalism in the service of the public interest. It’s not the sort of thing you’d see on “60 Minutes,” but necessity, as they say, is the mother of invention. In “Zero Days” and “Command and Control,” that necessity—the threat American power poses to its own populace—is front and center.
“We came so fucking close to disaster,” the actress relates, referring to the moment a more aggressive version of Stuxnet, fashioned by the Israelis, filtered into the wider world. “And we’re still on the edge.”
“Command and Control” is now playing in select theaters. “Zero Days” airs on Showtime Saturday, November 19 at 9 p.m.