Alex Gibney will be ready if the power grids fail.
“We have a place in Maine now,” the director says. “We just installed solar panels. We can fish. We have water. With a little bit of Sterno, we’ll probably be OK.”
After a long career dredging up the dark side of everything from the Catholic Church and Scientology to the U.S. military and lobbyists, Gibney is back with a new documentary, Zero Days, which might be his scariest — and most thrilling — yet. It’s an in-depth look at the malware that can and has caused real-world destruction on a massive scale — like taking an entire country offline.
“We’re the most vulnerable nation,” he says. “Our use of computers is so complete. We have the most to lose. Yet we’re not aware of how invasive this is.”
The malware he’s talking about is called Stuxnet, a highly sophisticated code discovered by cyber-security experts Eric Chien and Liam O’Murchu, which displays some jaw-dropping characteristics — including the ability to infect a computer even if you’ve done nothing to allow that to happen. When Chien and O’Murchu deconstructed Stuxnet, the product of a nation state, they found that it was made specifically to inflict actual physical harm, something that only seemed possible before in Tom Cruise blockbusters.
For instance, one aspect of the code allowed it to manipulate nuclear storage containers in an Iranian facility, dropping their temperatures or speeding up the circular motion inside that keeps the vessels stable. This malware likely is responsible for three separate explosions in Iranian nuclear facilities, but it disguised them as simple, blameless mechanical failures. The destruction is slow, long-term and insidious — until something big happens.
Most disturbing, the virus carries out preordained orders embedded into its code; nobody’s sitting at a desk hacking away or pushing a big red button, and nobody can stop it. Because computers now control most mechanics, from your Prius to your apartment building’s front door, a code such as this, with instructions not just to shut something down but to actively cause large-scale destruction — while obscuring the source — is terrifying.
“The hardest part was finding people who would talk about this,” Gibney says. “There are a number of people who aren't in the film who we interviewed, and they promised us they were going to talk about x, y and z, and when we put the camera down, they gave us broad generalities. They got terrified that they would be crossing some classified line, that they might be prosecuted or lose security clearance.”
Watching the film, you can feel Gibney’s frustration with the vague doublespeak, until he eventually interrupts a tight-lipped interviewee to vocalize his frustration. Gibney made a conscious decision to include that interjection in the film — as well as voice-over that explains some of the story gaps.
“In a way, the other side wins if you just cut to them saying, ‘No comment,’” Gibney says. “By making a point of it, it was saying there’s a real problem here. Too much of this is a secret. I’m not in the film that much, but I make sure the narration is consistently personal. Not the voice of God but me as the filmmaker. I’ve been experimenting with that. I didn’t think I’d do it, but because we ran into so many roadblocks, I decided I would comment on it personally. There’s a school of thought that says all narration is bad, but I don’t necessarily feel that way.”
Gibney hit so many obstacles with this film that he wasn’t even sure it would happen. It wasn’t until Chien and O’Murchu entered the picture that he realized he had a movie.
“With them, we had a detective story,” he points out. “They weren’t constrained by classification. They’re like the detectives that come upon the murder scene. Their job is to find a murder weapon, dust for fingerprints, start going after the killers.”
Gibney wanted the documentary to mimic the tone and structure of a Bourne film, but this meant more time moving pieces around in the editing suite. He had to explain not only technical code-speak but also basic history, jumping around in time to give the backstory of Iran’s nuclear weapons program and the United States’ part in encouraging it, skipping from George W. Bush to Obama and back again. The structure, while complicated, slowly reveals some big shockers, holding back the most revealing interviews until the audience needs to see them. But it’s not just the audience that gets the scare; Gibney received his fair share while listening to his subjects talk.
“When these experts say this is their worst nightmare, then that’s really a problem for the rest of us,” Gibney says. “I get scared, too. I didn’t have a sense of it at all when I started this project. Stuxnet itself was interesting, but when we learned about Nitro Zeus [the cyberattack plan laid out during the Obama administration to safeguard against any crossing of the Iran nuclear treaty], you realize, it’s here. As if to prove our point, recently a huge part of the Ukraine electric grid shut down, and what shut it down was a piece of malware like Nitro Zeus, and it was most certainly from Russia. This stuff isn’t hypothetical. It’s real.”
To keep the project under wraps and encourage anonymous sources to contribute, Gibney encrypted his email and phone but used solely analog voice recorders and electronic typewriters to transcribe the tapes before destroying them. When the CIA, State Department, Mossad and Iran are watching your back, no measure of precaution is too much. Gibney’s getting more and more accustomed to shooting anonymous interviews, but finding a way to make them look different or exciting requires creative measures.
In Zero Days, he devised something called “the Character,” a lifelike but clearly digital animation of a woman — something akin to rotoscoping, but with vectors.
“Everybody in the film to that point was a man, so we put a woman’s voice in,” Gibney says. “I wanted to create a character that was a kind of hacked avatar that we could manipulate, that felt like it was in the same world. We did a lot of that in post. We shoot a template, and in post we can move the camera around and vary the lines and dots. We tried to do something that was uncomfortable for the viewer — as we move forward in the narrative, we show more and more of her face and people say, ‘No, she’s going to be outed!’”
But behind the illustration is an actress who’s been performing the collective and anonymous thoughts of Nitro Zeus coders. The actress isn’t a letdown in her reveal, because what she’s already said is real and terrifying and dark. It’s difficult to feel comfortable after watching Zero Days and many of Gibney’s other films, but he says the longer he does the work, the more focused he is on glimmers of hope.
“I’m not really afraid of the dark,” he says. “But I’m becoming more and more interested in the people who fight back. Eric and Liam, these guys are like cyber lifeguards, keeping people safe. That part keeps me from a sense of despair, and slowly but surely, I think we make progress. I guess that’s one thing that’s changed over time for me: trying to find people making a difference in these dark stories. It’s really not all bad. Otherwise, it would just be me with that Sterno and a rifle and a fish hook, up in Maine, waiting for it to end.”