Zero Days, the latest film by acclaimed documentarian, Alex Gibney, details claims that the US and Israeli governments conducted covert cyber warfare operations against the Iranian government and the Iranians’ nuclear enrichment program. Zero Days, a fitting Opening Night Film for AFI DOCS, served as a catalyst for conversation in the Q & A immediately followed its screening at the Newseum in Washington D.C.
AFI President & CEO Bob Gazzale introduced the film and commented on the importance of Director Gibney’s work in line with “dreams for a better world. Dreams that demand debate!” In addition, Gazzele stated how honored he was to be partnering with this year’s presenting sponsor AT & T. AT & T spokesperson, Jennifer Coons, took stage and expressed what a privilege it was for AT & T to bring together politics, business and investment to learn from one another while connecting people.
Zero Days opened with a 2010 clip from an Iranian television station with the Iranian leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad vehemently denouncing Western and Zionist regimes interference in the Iranian nuclear enrichment program. Throughout the film, Gibney intersperses narrative voice overs and archival footage as the spokespersons for the US government repeatedly delivered “I can’t comment” when asked about the existence of a cyber warfare super virus, soon to be revealed as Stuxnet. Two malware, computer programming specialists from internet security behemoths Symantec and Kaspersky, uncover Stuxnet and both reach a professional conclusion after engaging in deep analytic data processing that the virus they are uncovering is more than just the work of an at-large hacker. The sophistication and the virus’ ability to replicate itself without a user doing anything and its ability to mutate undetected is known in malware jargon as ‘zero-day exploitation’ without any protection against it and was undoubtedly the work of a nation-state. The effect the virus had on the Iranian infrastructure as it attacked power plants, energy grids, gas pipelines and industrial sites resulted in deaths and severe repercussions for scientists and line operators alike. The Symantec and Kaspersky experts estimated 500,000 attacks were unleashed over the course of its deployment.
A former employee of the US Nuclear Regulatory Agency went on camera to say that he knew of one or two nation-states that were using cyber weapons for offensive purposes. However, when asked who the states were and were the states involved using Stuxnet, a dance of denial ensued with the former employee back peddling while reiterating he did not mention names of the existence of Stuxnet often uttering “I can’t comment on that.”
In Zero Days Gibney has upped the ante from previous works with heightened production values utilizing CGI and textual overlays to convey the genesis of a new era and a medium of espionage at the highest governmental levels and has done his homework as he provides a historical backdrop of the Iranian nuclear program disclosing the US gave Iran its first nuclear reactor under the Shah of Iran’s rule. In addition, he shows the pride the Iranian people have in their nuclear program demonstrated by their national celebrations for Nuclear Enrichment Day, a national nuclear day that has galvanized the republic of Iran. Throughout the remainder of Zero Days Gibney delves deeply into Homeland Security and the arsenal of the US Cyber Command apparatus with probing interviews and expose investigative reporting concluding with speculation on where this new game of global cyber warfare may lead.
Zero Days is one of this year’s most important films in light of recent accusations a foreign power hacked the Democratic National Committee’s computer system as well as Democratic Presidential Nominee, Hillary Clinton’s campaign system. New York Times columnist David E. Sanger reports on this in the July 30th edition with his article “U.S. Wrestles With How to Fight Back Against Cyberattacks.”
Gibney’s other works, no less confrontational, include Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief (2015), Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room (2005) and We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks (2013).