As the ripples of Russian governmental intervention in the US elections crashed across the airwaves last week, chipping away at a stony-faced Putin and turning The Donald’s putrid mien a more embarrassed shade of orange, the faint sound of Alex Gibney’s hands wringing with polemical glee could be heard from the famed documentarian’s home. Never one to shy away from asking the difficult questions on tough subject matter, the New York writer-director follows torture and interrogation, Wikileaks and Scientology with the timely release of Zero Days, a chilling expose of state-sponsored cyber warfare and the enemy within.
Chief in his preoccupations is the Stuxnet virus and an attack perpetrated in November 2010 on a heavily guarded Iranian nuclear facility at Natanz, along with the assassination of several prominent scientists. First discovered earlier that year, it constituted a malware intrusion without precedent, and of such sophistication and catastrophic potential, that even those in the know at Symantec were blown away, and initially baffled, by its perfectly constructed, self-propelling code, aimed at crippling infrastructure, military installations or in this instance a scientific research facility.
With no “hacktivists” claiming responsibility for its dirty brilliance, suspicion immediately fell on two nation states with the technology, funding and political incentive to ensure Iran did not develop the capability to construct a nuclear weapon: the USA and Israel. As if funneling his metier’s mantra directly down the throats of expressly taciturn interview subjects, Gibney asks “How can you have a debate if everything’s secret?” The great majority of interviewees are suspiciously stoical, shifting uncomfortably in chairs, throwing awkward stares off camera and affecting the kind of feigned, culpable smiles that say more than words. Casting an experienced hand over the revelation of material, Gibney is measured in his argumentation but tight lips do negate the possibility of too many eureka moments.
Indeed, other than Benjamin Netanyahu’s impassioned decrying of Iranian threats to his nation and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s vociferous finger pointing in the other direction, there are very few raised voices in Zero Days. This eerie reticence – reinforced by Will Bates’ meandering score – instills a quiet, deeply unnerving power to information divulged and a galling affirmation of guilt on behalf of the NSA. But this is apt for an unspoken conflict that occurs in the shadows, somewhere in an intangible ether that has existed out of sight and out of mind for so long.
After the land, sea and air of previous global conflicts, the 21st century has seen the creation of a fourth dimension of warfare that can no longer be swept under the carpet. But for the re-enacted, digitally blurred testimony of an NSA whistleblower that reveals a great deal, Netanyahu’s words to the UN, in light of an accord being struck with Iran to which he stood steadfastly opposed, ring true for Gibley’s film: there is a deafening silence at play here.
Matthew Anderson | @behind_theseens