EIFF 2016: Zero Days (2016)


Alex Gibney is a name known to fans of quality documentaries. I won’t reel off a list of his previous works, but I was lucky enough to interview the man a few years ago when he was attending EIFF with We Steal Secrets: The Story Of WikiLeaks. He’s a smart man, who seems to have a knack for creating engrossing stories from unsettling, and sometimes technically dense, material. Which must have made Zero Days one of his more frustrating projects.

This is a film in which numerous people try to protect themselves by reiterating just what they cannot comment on. Which isn’t really what a documentary maker wants to hear, as is made clear at one point when Gibney vocalises his exasperation. Not to worry though, with enough people who CAN talk about their role and a piecing together of the jigsaw from various disconnected sources, a big picture starts to appear, and it is clarified with some informative graphics, speculative conversation, and a trail of news items.

In case you haven’t heard anything about Zero Days, it is all about a particularly well-designed piece of malware – often referred to as Stuxnet – that was deployed to infect a number of terminals worldwide. Unlike many other programs of this type, Stuxnet was designed to go through a particular set of actions that would have real-world consequences. Despite travelling far and wide, in an altered form, the original target seems to have been the Iranian nuclear program. Inside the system, and undetected, the program would affect the centrefuges, causing them to fail miserably, but also causing people in positions of power to doubt their nuclear scientists and their own abilities.

Cyber warfare is what is being examined here, but only as a starting point. The real meat of the documentary lies in the thought-provoking consideration of what the rules of war should be, and what the limits are. It’s also reiterated a number of times that any conversation about this important topic needs to be free of restrictive classification. Nobody wants to be the next “Snowden” but there are still far too many obstructions in place just now for those people who acknowledge, and wish to set up some way to regulate, the scary potential of future cyber invasions.

Although there’s plenty here that is done right, including getting many prominent figures to discuss things in a general way that prompts more than just a “no comment” and putting over plenty of technical info to viewers in an understandable way, it’s a shame that Zero Days seems to peter out at about the halfway mark. Once you understand Stuxnet, and realise the ramifications (of both the featured malware and also other programs that could be created just like it), then the talk about how it affects global politics and modern warfare all blurs into one scene that feels just like the other. There are some other points being made, of course, but they don’t seem so significant while you’re contemplating a future scenario that feels very much like that moment when Skynet becomes self-aware.

This is a solid documentary. It’s just far from the best that we’ve seen from Gibney. Although, to be fair, he has set the bar quite high over the years.

Zero Days is showing at 1800 on 21st June, and 1510 on 25th June, both screenings at Cineworld.


Film Rating: ★★★☆☆

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