Movie review: ‘Zero Days’ chilling, riveting documentary
New from the crazy uncle who unwittingly armed his enemies in Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan comes Stuxnet, the computer worm that just might replace the H-bomb as the thing we fear more than fear itself. And who better to scare the pants off of us than Oscar-winner Alex Gibney, whose chilling documentary, “Zero Days,” riveting chronicles how Uncle Sam yet again outsmarted himself by inadvertently providing our enemies a new weapon to turn against us.
Who knew binary code could be so deadly?
Certainly not the folk at NSA, CIA and our nation’s various other alphabet agencies who conspired with Israeli “intelligence” to design, code and unleash the self-replicating Stuxnet malware on enough computers for it to eventually be intercepted and turned right back on our nation’s fragile cyber infrastructures. In other words, giving our not-so-good friends in Russia, Iran, China and North Korea the power to wipe out our power grids, financial systems and air-traffic controls with a few dozen strategic keystrokes.
Yikes! We’re all gonna die! Well, that panic might be a little premature, but it won’t be if we don’t start treating cyberwarfare the same way we do nukes by forging treaties and setting rules of engagement. That’s the hope of prominent U.S. spymasters like Richard Clarke and Gen. Michael Hayden, the former chief of both the CIA and NSA. They are among the dozen or so experts Gibney interviews in his quest to root out the origins of Stuxnet, its untimely unfurling and its long-term effects on how we might wage war in the 21st century.
Their observations, and those of a spooky Max Headroom-type hologram collectively dishing out top-secret info leaked by a smattering of unnamed whistleblowers inside the NSA, will scare the bejesus out of you. But the beauty of Gibney, the genius behind classic docs like “Taxi to the Dark Side,” “Going Clear,” “Steve Jobs,” “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room” and “Client 9,” is his ability to make his relentless muckraking shamefully entertaining, even generating laughs among the doomsday predictions. Even better is his brilliant use of pictures and graphics to make an incredibly complex subject almost easy to understand, particularly in how Stuxnet was devised to anonymously attack the rapidly spinning centrifuges in Iran’s heavily fortified fuel-enrichment plant in Natanz.
He flawlessly spins what could have been a tech-talk heavy bore into an enthralling espionage thriller complete with the assassinations of Iranian nuclear scientists and an arsenal of bits and bytes every bit as lethal as terrorists packing bombs and AR-15s. And what: No digital clock counting down? Not with Stuxnet and its even more powerful successor, Nitro Zeus. They are malware that frighteningly strike silently and without warning.
OK, so what do we do? The first thing Gibney’s array of experts stress is moving cyberwarfare out of the shadows and into the light, by having Western intelligence organizations admit that such programs exist and then open a worldwide dialogue on controlling it so — like nukes — we don’t end up on the verge of destroying Earth. As Hayden says, like 1945, we’ve opened a Pandora’s Box, and there’s no chance of ever putting the lid back. And no thanks to the Stuxnet inventors, we must learn to live with it. And how we choose to do that will greatly determine if we live free, or at the mercy of these “cyber armies” who could well be the deaths of us all.
A documentary by Alex Gibney featuring David Sanger, Richard Clark, Gen. Michael Hayden and Eugene Kapinsky.
(PG-13 for some strong language)