Zero Days


Reviewed by: Andrew Robertson

Zero Days
"Good documentary finds an interesting story or is interestingly told - great documentary does both, and Zero Days is that."

Zero Day is usually followed by 'exploit', a phrase from the computer security industry for a weakness, a vulnerability, for which there has been no chance to prepare. Zero Days is a film about another kind of exploit, one that's "not just a cool spy story", but there's a cool spy story in it - the story of a worm, a wyrm even, a monster that has been loosed on the world.

A monster called STUXNET, or at least a monster for which STUXNET is a kenning - the invisible Olympian, the Natanz gremlin, a story whose rough outlines may be familiar to scholars of fissile geopolitics or viral analytics but whose depth is stunning and carefully drawn.

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Alex Gibney's latest feature-length documentary explores a subject that could seem dry and technical in a way that is compelling even to audiences who will not clock that the numbers in the computer-generated images of the globe are hexadecimal pairs, that the archive footage of the Upshot Knothole Grable is only one outpost of the variety of nuclear madness that made the 1950s such a deep and glowing sedimentary hallmark of the anthropocene. At Edinburgh's 70th film festival audience members were drawn in - leant forward - as the story unfolded.

In quick, crisp, fashion, the story is unfolded. The who, the what, the where, the when, the why, the how, the journalistic superfecta, hexagonal history, illuminated by interview, supported stylishly, and convincingly constructed.

There are undeniable elements, and then some conjecture, but those last are ably supported by a solid chain of evidence - Zero Days is a film that is making a case, that a series of events in the early part of the second decade of this century changed the world in which we live.

Cyberspace, the story goes, was a term coined by William Gibson, who in the entrails of the operation Screaming Fist not only echoed the prospect of an avenue of battle with the Gullfire over Leningrad but suggested some Prometheus who had stolen that fire, awaiting infinite torment. The history of computing runs in parallel with that of nuclear weaponry, and this is similarly true of Zero Days. During the Manhattan Project and its informational mirror at Bletchley Park 'computer' meant a person. Only as the pachinko-like cascade of manual Monte Carlo calculation gave way to bombes, and the bomb, did 'mechanical' become the appendage and then 'electromechanical' and then 'digital' and then 'personal' and now 'ubiquitous'.

There is a reasonable chance that as you read this on one computer there is another on your wrist, in your pocket, in the bowels of the building in which you sit, in the linestreamed terraplane that carried you to your place of employ. A device that may or may not have been intended to connect to a reservoir of inquiry and infectivity, to a babel 17 times too large to comprehend. Gibson, it is alleged, said that the future was already here - it's just differently distributed - and STUXNET is that distribution, that autonomous bane of centrifuges, that SCADA scoundrel, that four times zero, that orphan with many parents, that nigh-bugless hive of futurity.

An age, opines one of the many talking heads, that is singular - a moment that has a recognisable before, a distinct after - a sea change like the end of the battleship-era. We hear in archive from various heads of state, and in interview from other actors - your securicrats, your technocratic elite, your intelligence-industrial complex, your three-letter agency-directors, your skull-and-bonesmen, your insiders, connected outsiders, your deciders, your decoders, your "let this dirty business be done at such a distance that we detect no odours". Access is not the word - answer is - at times, they will say that they cannot answer. The essence of governmental work is sometimes that it is so dull that if they told you what you did you would kill yourself. These are not those times, this is not bureaucracy, but "two if by sea", the imminentisation not of eschaton but escalation - where semiotic meets semiautomatic - what is an attack? Is it shards on a desk? Is it cards in a deck? Is it the probable or the provable?

Which is, perhaps, the film's one weakness - this is a light shining on shadows of rumours of guesses of murmurs of whispers of ghosts - a wilderness of mirrors. For all that it can say, for the testimony, for the technology, this is still to some extent supposition. Not unsupported, nor unsupportable, nor, truth be told, missable - good documentary finds an interesting story or is interestingly told - great documentary does both, and Zero Days is that. A sophisticated delivery mechanism with a powerful payload, the film inveigles such that in being perceived it changes perceptions.

Reviewed on: 20 Jun 2016
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Zero Days packshot
An investigation into Stuxnet and cyber security issues.
Amazon link

Director: Alex Gibney

Year: 2016

Runtime: 116 minutes

Country: US


BIFF 2016
EIFF 2016

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