In 2010, Iran’s Natanz nuclear plant began suffering baffling implosions of its uranium-processing centrifuges. It seemed a technical problem at first, and it was — the machinery controlling the centrifuges had malfunctioned — but that mechanical issue was purposefully triggered by the plant’s computer system, which had been hacked with amazingly efficient malware that came to be known as Stuxnet. Here was something revolutionary and terrifying: malware so sophisticated it could initiate a physical reaction in the real world.
News of Stuxnet rocked the intelligence and hacker worlds, and Zero Days is at its most gripping in its first section, when a series of still-astonished computer geeks attempt to walk us through the code. Gibney and visual effects designer Sarah Dowland fill the screen with shimmering lines of source code and invite us to take the journey the analysts took, deciphering Stuxnet section by section, in search of its elusive “payload,” the code containing the worm’s essential target of attack. This is serious business, but as pure story, it’s also exhilarating.
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.