Since movies began to talk, moviemakers have used the medium to warn audiences of the signs of impending doom. From Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times in the 1930s to Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove in the 1960s to Jeff Nichols’ Take Shelter a few years ago, movies help us consider what end could occur if people stop trusting each other.
Those films were fiction. And we could leave the comfort of the movie theater with the assurance that these narratives – no matter how disturbing – were the product of cinematic imagination. Because fiction can be more comfortable than truth.
But the documentary filmmaker searches for truth. And in the harrowing new film Zero Days, documentarian Alex Gibney paints a frightening picture of a world in which the most destructive battles do not require drones or involve explosives. They rely, instead, on that handy device that reinvents how we manage time, pursue entertainment or produce work. Gibney projects a threat so immediate that we use its keyboard everyday.
Prompted by the mystery of the Stuxnet computer virus – portrayed as the basis of a cyber attack on Iran’s nuclear program – Gibney’s movie reaches beyond the details of that single episode to create a mini-series of events that frame a world fascinated by the potential of computers to destroy. Without resorting to the shock cinema of a Roger Moore – who freely interjects his opinions into his films – a soft-spoken Gibney simply asks questions that anyone might ponder. “What can this actually do?” and “Who are we most afraid of?” become, in Gibney’s steady hands, prompts for revelations of a world that could be defined by a new kind of terror.
Gibney begins his film slowly, carefully, as if realizing that before his content can frighten it must be understood. He makes the backstory of computer code as simple and accessible as possible, helping those of us who only know how to turn a laptop on understand what power the device can wield. Relying on a strong collection of interviews with computer and security experts from around the world, Gibney never lets his technical content distract from his narrative. As the filmmaker creatively uses animation to track what happens inside a computer when malware is employed, the voices of experts carefully describe the potential destruction when systems are hacked. By making the explanation easy to digest, Gibney forms the foundation to frighten.
Relying on the confidential testimony of sources inside the NSA, Gibney broadens his reach from what may have happened in Iran to what that episode could mean to a world shaken by global wars. He paints a picture of the ultimate danger that could occur when computers invade other countries without having to physically cross a border. From shutting down an infrastructure to eliminating a nation’s ability to defend, a cyber war could have lasting effects we can’t imagine. By remaining calm as a filmmaker, Gibney lets us react to the horror his cameras create.
If Alex Gibney made films based on fiction, rather than movies that emerge from truth, he might be tempted (or encouraged by a studio) to fill his story with a romance for the hero, a tragedy for the villain and confusion for those around. But the documentarian Gibney doesn’t have to conform to conventional expectations. He can frighten by revealing truth. In Zero Days, he reminds us that not only can truth be stranger than fiction, it can be a lot scarier, too.
Content: High. Documentarian Alex Gibney explores the potential destruction of cyber warfare in a film that alarms from its opening.
Entertainment: High. Despite the technical nature of the content, Gibney paints a human picture of what can happen when people use the latest to try to harm the most.
Message: High. The film is a must see for anyone who wants to understand what can threaten the security we live with every day.
Relevance: High. Any opportunity to talk with our older children about such essential issues can be rewarding and meaningful.
Opportunity for Dialogue: High. After you share this film with your older children, you will have a great deal to discuss about what could happen and what needs to be done.
Zero Days is rated PG-13 for some strong language. It runs 90 minutes. The film is available On Demand, online streaming as well as in theaters in New York City.)
Reel Dad Rating: Five Popcorn Buckets
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Dr. Strangelove: 52-Year-Old fiction that rings true
As Alex Gibney’s powerful documentary Zero Days explores, the potential of war doesn’t end with the military. And the threat of nuclear destruction is not fun and games.
Fifty-two years ago, as Americans feared the impact of the Cold War, director Stanley Kubrick created a fictional account of potential destruction that eerily parallels the nonfiction content of Gibney’s film. The two movies make, in fact, compelling bookends of a discussion of how far people and nations may go to destroy.
As Kubrick conveys in Dr. Strangelove, every generation seems to introduce a few people on earth with the controls in hand that could end civilization. Some are domestic, others are foreign; some are political, others are from the military; some are frightening, others frighten. All we can do is hope that common sense and cool heads will prevail. But the severity of what could happen – if the decision to go to war fell into the wrong hands – is a haunting possibility that every generation must confront.
Picture yourself, for 90 minutes or so, living the possibility of the world coming to an end because people make outrageous decisions and refuse to admit their mistakes and correct their errors. Imagine a world so fragile where one person can, on a whim, signal the end of how people live. And consider the very real threat that placing powerful weapons in the wrong hands can create. That is the world of Dr. Strangelove.
In 1964, when the film was made, the reality it creates was all too real to a citizenry in the United States filled with school children who would “duck and cover” under classroom desks and parents who built elaborate bomb shelters in case the inevitable might occur. Because the superpowers of the time – the US and the Soviet Union – each had the ability to destroy the other many times over, people lived in fear that such a doomsday plot could actually happen. So the film, when it opened, was viewed less as fiction than a disturbing interpretation of a feasible reality. Because it all could happen, movie audiences embraced the film as, perhaps, a way to feel better because none of it actually did happen.
Kubrick is too wise to make the film too ominous. Instead he uses humor to examine what inspires leaders to want to destroy the civilized world in the name of supremacy. By putting together such a bizarre collection of characters, and placing them in such hysterical yet plausible situations, he stretches the truth just enough to project what actually could happen if common decency and caring were forgotten long enough to simply push the button to launch a destructive nuclear weapon.
While we did, as a civilization, survive that turbulent time of Cold War, the possibility of global doom never disappears. Only the names of the threatening countries change. And the ways they wage war. So what if the great powers of the world decide to destroy each other? And the people who run strong countries begin to care less about the people they are assigned to protect in the interest of proving who has the most destructive weapons?
What makes Dr. Strangelove important to experience – more than 50 years after it was released – is to notice how little, in fact, the world has changed. Leaders, no matter what they may say to be elected, remain capable of letting petty jealousies and fears cloud their judgment. And the only power that people may have in such turbulent times is to make certain, through how we speak and how we vote, that access is denied to those who do not deserve to know the codes. As Zero Days brings to life, the fear of what people and nations can do reaches every part of everyday life.
See you at the movies.
(Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, not rated when first released in 1964, is now rated PG for thematic elements, some violent content, sexual humor and mild language. It runs 95 minutes and is available on line.)