If your city’s power grid shuts down this summer, it may be a brownout, or it may be an act of cyber-warfare — a straight-out-of-Hollywood scenario that suddenly seems scarily possible thanks to the labyrinthine story Alex Gibney tells in his riveting documentary Zero Days. It’s complicated, but know that the insidious new malware technology that could conceivably wreak havoc on America’s infrastructure — power/water plants, air/train travel, the banking system — originally may have been created by America itself and its ally Israel, not that you should expect either country to confirm that intel.
Since no terrorist group or nation state has ever claimed credit for Stuxnet, Gibney can only hypothesize about its origins, but he makes an alarmingly lucid (if circumstantial) case for the culpability of the United States and Israel. Stuxnet appears to have been authorized by President George W. Bush as an attempt to soothe Israel’s urgent desire to bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities. The Natanz hack took place on President Obama’s watch and, indeed, there’s a suggestion here that Obama leveraged the threat of more Stuxnet-style attacks to get Iran to the nuclear bargaining table.
Zero Days is a conversation starter, but it may not have the lasting resonance of Gibney’s other documentaries. His most resonant efforts come when he’s working from a place of outrage. The Oscar-winning Taxi to the Dark Side (2007), Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God (2012) and last year’s Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief are fueled by the filmmaker’s fury and sorrow. With Zero Days, Gibney — who can be heard asking questions throughout — seems more worried and baffled. He’s worried because his cadre of former intelligence chiefs are telling him that Stuxnet signals the start of a new, uncontainable kind of warfare, and baffled because no one seems properly concerned.
Naively perhaps, Gibney wonders when the great powers will cop to cyber-trickery such as Stuxnet and begin to put in place rules to govern its use. All wars have rules — at least they used to — and Zero Days aims to inspire something more high-minded than the current mantra of both the bad guys and the good: Do What You Can Get Away With.