Sydney Film Festival Review: Zero Days (USA, 2016)

Over the course of the last century, warfare has been conducted on land, in the sea or in the air. But with thanks to our ever evolving technology there no longer needs to be a physical presence for war. It can now all be done electronically, digitally, silently and invisibly and cause irreparable damage. When a malicious computer virus known as “Stuxnet” is found it sets those in the anti-virus realm into a frenzy in an attempt to discover not only its origins but how to potentially defeat it. What those in the anti-virus industry weren’t aware of, was not only how dangerous this virus was but the fact that its purpose was far more sinister than they could imagine.

From Alex Gibney, the director of last year’s breakout documentary film Going Clear: Scientology & The Prison of Belief, his latest docu-thriller examines the very real and frightening world of cyberwarfare. It focuses almost exclusively on the “Stuxnet” virus (also known as Olympic Games), a self-replicating piece of malware that began multiplying and spreading uncontrollably around the world. After investigation from members of the anti-virus community it’s alleged that the virus was commissioned by both the US and Israeli governments as a means of sabotaging Iran’s nuclear program. However their plan soon backfired when not only did the virus end up escaping and spreading to other systems globally. But the Iranians discovered what was going on, only to then allegedly launch one of their own cyber attacks on the US in retaliation.

Gibney interviews a wide range of people, from former government employees, members of covert organisations such as the NSA and Mossad, to journalists, to specialists in the anti-virus industry as well as utilising leaked government documents to piece this all together. As expected, almost all of the Government officials are not at liberty to discuss any details of the attack, only that they can admit that it indeed happen. But after talking to Eric Chieng of Symantec and Eugene Kaspersky of Kaspersky (both world renowned experts in anti-virus technology) they along with journalist/investigator David Sanger of New Yorks Times are both quite adamant that this had to be a government sanctioned attack. Then there’s also the clandestine style interview with an NSA whistleblowing employee, which Gibney eventually reveals is an actress re-enacting an amalgamation of a number of statements from employees who wished to remain anonymous.

The most disconcerting thing is how this virus was used to target a particular type of mechnical hardware called a PLC (Programmable Logic Computer). PLC’s are often used to control infrastructure such as electrical power plants, water filtration, gas lines. The fact that this virus targeted a PLC shows just how vulnerable a lot of our infrastructure based technology is, most of which were not designed to withstand a cyber attack. Fortunately the Stuxnet virus had a built-in kill date, in which it would cease to continue working but if it hadn’t it could have potentially caused severe damage to a number of systems around the world potentially throwing cities into blackouts or shutting off their water supply. As one of Gibney’s interviewees says, “The norm is do whatever you can get away with”.

Gibney presents an easily digestible albeit unnerving look at the events that unfolded. For those of us who aren’t too tech-savvy it’s definitely the Cliff’s Notes version, which is good as it does make it a little easier to understand. Though I’m almost certain there is much more complexity at work here, it’s just it would make a very tedious and difficult to follow film.

Gibney employs a number of visual and musical techniques to keep the interest and never tries to weigh it down with too much technobabble. Because of the nature of this, it does mean that Gibney doesn’t really start to hit his stride until later in the film. Where the stakes and sheer scale of how deadly and dangerous the cyberwarfare is between Governments. He makes a point of highlighting the fact that secrecy surrounding cyberwarfare is getting in the way of serious political discussions surrounding its capability and use and implementing guidelines around its use.

Review Score: THREE AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Running Time: 114 minutes

Zero Days is screening as part of the Sydney Film Festival, for more information or to purchase tickets, visit their website.