While “Mr. Robot” gets audiences booted up with its second season of high-stakes plots, the real-life component to its dark-web conspiracy theories is outlined exhaustively in an Alex Gibney documentary.
“Zero Days” is an exposé, in part, of Stuxnet, a super computer virus infamous in the tech-security community for its sophistication and global reach. It infected systems all over the world starting in 2010, although its development, the film reveals, likely began much earlier.
Although its highly classified status prevents current and former government officials from openly discussing the malware, people speaking to Gibney in code (human, not computer) and leaks to the Washington Post and the New York Times reveal Stuxnet as part of a covert and officially secret sabotage campaign called Operation Olympic Games.
The campaign, according to those reports and the documentary, likely was a joint operation between the United States and Israel. The countries supposedly targeted Iran’s nuclear program with a virus built, we learn, to infect and sabotage its nuclear-enrichment facilities.
The virus works by causing system failures, which simultaneously would damage real-world infrastructure and baffle Iranian scientists scrambling to figure out what was going wrong. The dark nature of such an attack, if true, is so secret as to be invisible. It took the accidental escape of the Stuxnet malware and its subsequent decoding by various tech companies to even realize it existed. Then those who found it set about figuring out where it came from and what purpose it had.
This is all troubling to Gibney — maker of the Scientology doc “Going Clear,” as well as “Enron: the Smartest Guys in the Room” and “Taxi to the Dark Side” — and many of the professionals he interviews in government and the tech industry. Because if true, the operation could be considered a secret act of war.
That’s the heart of “Zero Days,” which develops an elegant argument that Stuxnet is part of a new type of warfare that has no rules or governable limits. And it’s a type of warfare that could be turned back against us.
Gibney’s documentary is impressively fashioned, maintaining drama even in the face of a lot of computer code talk and history lessons ranging from Iran’s nuclear program to the earlier development of world nuclear disarmament treaties. It gathers a staggering number of former and current world leaders in government and media to weigh in on Stuxnet and the Olympic Games campaign, from its inception to its consequences, both intended and not.
The problem with Stuxnet, some people contend, is that a later version, beefed up to work faster, jumped the gap between the target and the Internet, leading to its spread around the world.
In a particularly ironic twist noted by the film, the head of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, we’re told, suspected the malware as an attack on the United States by some foreign enemy, leading to his eventual testimony on the matter before Congress, whose members, also supposedly in the dark, wondered whether a nation was behind it.
Such an attack could be dire, according to the film. What happens if another country brought down our power grid, Internet or both? People could die, we learn, because you can’t just turn fresh water back on 24 hours later.
But the implications are speculative, too. Could another country conduct and succeed with such a massive attack? Perhaps, but there’s no one here who can really say. Sometimes the film sounds a bit overwrought, especially during scenes featuring a highly concealed National Security Agency informant. But one must concede that it would be difficult for Gibney to get an opposing view when officials across the board refuse to talk about it.
There may or may not be a present danger within “Zero Days,” but clearly there’s a lot to think about. It’s very thorough and much broader in its scope than you might expect from a documentary about a piece of malware. The challenge to viewers is how interested they are in all these details and subplots. The overall story of Stuxnet and Operation Olympic Games could be summed up more quickly. A trip around the Internet would give you the broad strokes. Just be careful looking it up. (PG-13) 116 min. S