Proving that he’s not afraid to keep going after wealthy, powerful and secretive institutions, Alex Gibney takes aim at the United States government with Zero Days. Exploring the background of the mysterious Stuxnet Worm, the film dives head-first into the murky waters of international espionage, nuclear capabilities, and cyber-warfare. While an assembly of candid, one-on-one interviews talk us through the complex topics, a sense of agitation and helplessness begins to invade the picture, leaving only a massive sense of paranoia in its wake.
Taking stylistic cues from the likes of Paul Greengrass’ Jason Bourne entries and all five Mission Impossible films, Zero Days is as much thriller as it is documentary. Complete with a brooding synth score and prophetic end-of-days mantra, Gibney injects so much artificial weight into his film that it verges on popping (much like an actual, albeit heavy-handed, visual metaphor that he uses). But our director has a trick up his sleeve — he knows the ending. Despite all of the posturing and ominous music, Zero Days lands with a resounding thud, because the subject is just terrifying enough to warrant it. Like a drunken boxer shoving people outside of a nightclub, Gibney’s loud mouth is supported by his ability to knock you out.
Unable to get most government/ex-government employees to discuss the worm in any capacity, Gibney’s frustration bleeds onto the screen. Finally finding a credible Washington D.C. source, the director uses one of the most unsettling identity-masking devices ever conceived, and our foul-mouthed, real-world Pamela Landy is free to speak her mind and speculate wildly. This disfigured NSA insider discusses Israel-sanctioned assassinations with the same nonchalance as the decorative Star Wars and Aqua Teen Hunger Force gear the “nerds” in her sector have scattered across their cubicles. Diving into the ties between the CIA and Mossad, and the “no comment” attitude shared by all of the winking politicians, Zero Days feels more and more like House of Cards and less like a serious indictment of governmental misconduct. At a point, this carefree attitude towards these deadly actions turns from a feeling of assumed glibness into a yardstick against which the negligence of the those responsible can be measured.
Alex Gibney has an almost unmatched ability to humanize his interviewees. Sitting down with government officials from the U.S. and Israel, he manages to cut through rhetoric and stock answers to get right to the personalities of his subjects. Robotic men unable to provide more than “I cannot comment on that” still seem to fall prey to his charisma and crack knowing smiles as they deliver their practiced responses. This humanity is why Zero Days is so singularly terrifying. These men are not specially-trained experts or purpose-built machines devoted to a cause, they are flawed humans doing a job the way they see fit. With the power of the world’s armies at their fingertips, and with the future of mankind at stake, these highly-ranking officials are like children afraid to get in trouble with mommy.
A shocking look at the future of international warfare, Zero Days is at its best when embroiled in computing language and incident breakdowns, and at its worst almost never. A wake-up call for American policy makers, and a plea to treaty-writers (if that is indeed a real job) to put a stop to state-sponsored cyber crime, Gibney’s documentary is a startling reminder that even in a world where every bit of information is at your fingertips, there are still plenty of secrets to be had.
Jordan Brooks (@viewtoaqueue) is an increasingly-snobby cinefile based out of London, England. As a contributor to several online publications, including his own blog, he has succeeded in fulfilling his life long dream of imposing strong opinions on others.