‘Zero Days’ looks at computer virus used to attack Iran

July 8, 2016 GMT

The documentarian Alex Gibney could be considered the other side of the same coin as Michael Moore. Both veer to the left politically, but whereas Moore’s films feature the director front and center, Gibney frequently stays in the background.

He’s also prolific, churning out movies year after year. He won an Oscar for the 2007 film “Taxi to the Dark Side,” and gained an enormous amount of attention last year for his movie about Scientology, “Going Clear.” He has made movies about Elliot Spitzer, Lance Armstrong and Julian Assange, and now, in “Zero Days,” he’s turning his attention to cyberwarfare, Stuxnet, and the risks the United States has undertaken and perhaps created for itself while trying to keep nuclear weapons out of the hands of states it considers rogues.

Rating: PG-13

When: Opens today

Where: Landmark Ken Cinema

Running time: 1 hour, 56 minutes

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Stuxnet is the computer virus that was developed by Israel and the United States to attack a nuclear facility in Iran in 2010. Exceedingly sophisticated, and for some time quite effective, it also marked a new era in international warfare. Unlike the hacking done by essentially every nation state, Stuxnet was an actual attack on a sovereign nation.

The subject matter is fascinating, though much of the information Gibney covers has been available for interested parties for a number of years. The secrecy that continues to surround these events is striking, as are the ramifications of releasing a virus like this into the digital wilderness. Neither country has ever actually confessed to creating and delivering Stuxnet, and most of the talking heads Gibney interviews play their cards very close to the vest.

“Zero Days” really is about the changes in both diplomacy and warfare that have been brought about by our ever-increasingly-connected world. Gibney makes it clear — as does Michael Hayden, the former director of the NSA — that it seems neither Israel nor the United States truly thought through the consequences of its actions. That’s true in terms of the impact the attack had on Iran, the fact that Stuxnet escaped to the outside world, and the possibility that we have opened ourselves up to cyberattacks from other states. After all, if we can do it, what’s to stop others?

Gibney’s motives are clear and noble. His methodology, in this case, is a bit more muddled. Gibney’s greatest strength has always been getting people in power to talk to him. In this case, though, it was clear that most of the people he wanted to speak with wouldn’t reveal what they know. It’s also possible he felt people talking about unpacking computer code just isn’t sexy, even when it’s being done by guys who started to be concerned about their own well-being as they realized what they had stumbled upon.

Because of all of that, Gibney uses techniques that give the movie a top-secret, spy-thriller feel, which lends an intensity that isn’t particularly in keeping with the story. While what happened in Iran is truly the stuff of spies, the story Gibney’s describing isn’t, and that aspect of the movie feels somewhat forced. That’s not enough to really take apart the entire movie, but it does remove you, just a bit, from the reality Gibney is exploring.

Though Stuxnet was introduced to the world in 2010, in many ways “Zero Days” could not be more timely, what with the current election cycle. It’s a confusing new cyberworld we live in, and whoever becomes our next president will have to navigate his or her way — and ours — through it.

Wright writes about movies for The San Diego Union-Tribune. Email him at anderswright@gmail.com.