As a documentarian, Alex Gibney embraces his finite understanding of the world around him, fearlessly probing deeper into its mysteries to reframe the status quo and affect change for his fellow man.
In working through his inquisitive nature onscreen, whether it’s exposing the fragility of the human mind when subjected to cult psychology in Going Clear or investigating U.S. torture tactics during the War in Afghanistan with Taxi to the Dark Side, Gibney wrangles the expanse of his own high-stakes curiosity into easily-digestible, compelling films. His heart is often in the right place, and he’s not afraid to get his hands dirty.
A sense of duty and morals doesn’t render Gibney infallible as a storyteller, however, as even passion for justice sometimes breeds overindulgence when you’re drunk with power and a camera.
That’s not to say Zero Days, filled to the brim with sometimes impenetrably boring information, is a film you can’t respect – even if it isn’t always easy to sit through. Rarely does a filmmaker so dangerously take to task the most powerful government in the world for its part in spearheading an American-Israeli cyber war aimed at eviscerating Iran’s nuclear program, a move that produced a vicious digital worm, Stuxnet, which U.S. officials refuse to claim responsibility for to this day. Funneling such daunting material into bite-sized bits is a tall order, and Zero Days takes time to settle in, plodding along as it dresses the stage to reveal the consequences of what happens when a few lines of hostile computer code fall into the hands of borderline unchecked power.
At its core, Zero Days is largely about retraining our gaze on the Internet. By the film’s end, we see it not as something that has long punctuated – and, in many ways, defined – our lives up to this point, but as something sinister. It’s in our bedrooms, on our phones, in taxicabs and on airplanes; it’s an invisible source of enjoyment and information accessible from anywhere, yet with Stuxnet, it can become a tool of literal (and limitless) destruction.
As Zero Days’ roster of shrouded-in-shadows talking heads tell us, countless government figures from around the world won’t openly discuss Stuxnet, making whatever damning information Gibney’s research yields feel like sobering revelation. Zero Days is then, ironically, an ideal movie for Internet conspiracy theorists displeased with the powers that be, though Gibney deserves credit for doing more than just fanning the flames of paranoia. As he did with Going Clear, he puts up a wall from the outset, establishing a barricade between them and us, the big and the small, but doesn’t so much call for anarchy as much as he leaves the momentum at our feet, trusting the sound-minded to pick it up and run with it if they so choose.
In that way, Zero Days almost frees itself from criticism for its willingness to enlighten its audience, but Gibney often buries his nose so deeply in his subject that he forgets to capitalize on the joys of the cinematic medium in the process. The power of a successful documentarian lies in his or her ability to find a narrative amid the complex trappings of the real world and, more often than not, Gibney does just that with Zero Days, though a little jazz hands along the way wouldn’t have hurt anyone, either. B