A man in a trenchcoat and a fedora waves you into an alley. This is intriguing, you think, very clandestine and such. You follow and he pulls you close and whisper “Psst! Hey, hey you? Have you heard of Stuxnet? It’s kind of a big deal.” Yes, you say, of course you have, it was in all of the newspapers and websites and such. “Well,” he says, drawing you even closer, “did you ever think that we might need to rethink our policies around government secrecy?” Huh? You expected dark secrets, heretofore unrevealed revelations about the underground doings of states and spies, not… not this. You jerk back, as the man, suddenly desperate, grabs your arm and says, “This is an important story! We need to start a national conversation!” Horrified, you yank your arm away from him and run into the street, seized with the kind of existential dread that comes when one barely survives a close encounter with that most foul of creatures – the pundit.
Alex Gibney has made many well-received documentaries in recent years, summarizing topical stories in movie-length packages. Enron, torture, Eliot Spitzer, Scientology, Wikileaks, church sex abuse, Jack Abramoff, Steve Jobs – you name it, Gibney’s probably interviewed a couple dozen people about it and slapped it together with a melodramatic score and a few nifty camera tricks. He’s done literally dozens of these over the last decade, amassing awards and plaudits for shedding light on important stories. This quarter’s entry is Zero Days, a summary of the story behind the Stuxnet virus, which the United States and Israel jointly created to inhibit Iran’s nuclear program. If that last sentence was news to you, then you should probably see Zero Days; if not, then you probably shouldn’t.
Zero Days is a perfectly-adequate episode of Frontline padded to twice the length with B-roll footage from Tron and truckload of self-importance. It might’ve even been tolerable if it justified even a fraction of that self-importance with compelling analysis or unique revelations. Instead, it obsesses about getting an inside source to confirm on-the-record something everybody knows, resulting in the bizarre use of a CGI-rotoscoped actor reciting transcripts from various whistleblowers. The revelations contained therein are so thin, and Gibney is so obviously thirsty for them, that I genuinely wonder if he wasn’t played for a patsy, getting his material from “inside sources” strategically leaking to shape the contours of the story. For someone who wants to tell a spy story, Gibney seems more than a little credulous.
Zero Days is emblematic of a bad trend in documentary filmmaking, one where flash and gimmicks are slathered over a regurgitation of well-known facts told through talking heads, a trend of which Gibney is at the forefront. If one is shedding light on previously unknown or badly-underreported events, well, it is what it is, but Stuxnet is not that story! A search of nytimes.com for Stuxnet brings 446 hits; even Buzzfeed has mentioned it 31 times. Sadly, Upworthy has never seemed to mention it, but I have trouble imagining there are many people who only get their news from Upworthy who nevertheless choose to watch a topical documentary about current events in a movie theater.
Zero Days is completely devoid of the kind of analysis or context that would make it an actually elucidating experience, and it is resolutely, purposefully so. Is there any discussion of the history or law surrounding espionage? No. Any context for the rise in government use of secrecy? No. Any discussion of the Iranian revolution when discussing the history of the US-Iran relationship? No. Any counterpoint to the endless fearmongering from financially- or politically-interested parties given carte blanche to fearmonger by a credulous documentary filmmaker looking to connect middlebrow audiences in search of their tote bag fix with those looking to manipulate middlebrow audiences? No. Not all documentaries are good, but there are few that I walk away from wondering if I now know less about the topic. In that way, at least, Zero Days is exceptional.