First, Brexit came out of nowhere to change the world as we know it. Now, as Alex Gibney reveals in his new documentary “Zero Days,” opening July 8, we have “Stuxnet” and its progeny to worry about.
That’s the name of the virus cooked up by US and Israeli agencies that was employed in 2010 to sabotage the Iranian nuclear program. Though arguably a blow against nuclear proliferation, this undercover operation ironically could ignite a new arms race — of cyber weapons.
Recently we met with Gibney in a Harvard Square restaurant, where the prolific director of nearly three dozen films, including 2007’s Oscar-winning “Taxi to the Dark Side,” discussed his latest documentary and why he felt compelled to make it.
Q. If this is such a big deal, how come nobody running for president is talking about it?
A. It’s a big deal, and the fact that nobody is talking about it is kind of jaw-dropping. Cyber weapons have the capacity to become a global threat. It could be like the 1950s sci-fi thriller “The Day the Earth Stood Still,” where suddenly everything shuts down. Maybe the scariest part is that they are so hard to attribute so that there could be an untraceable attack or a false flag attack and then a counterattack launched against someone who didn’t actually launch the first attack. And the terrorists are part of it. Right now it’s hard for them to mount that kind of thing but they can examine the codes out there and start thinking about it.
Q. Is there some way to avoid this?
A. By getting things more out into the open. The US, for example, is spending money for cyber defense but from what we understand their overall strategy is the best defense is a good offense. It’s kind of like mutually assured destruction, but without the mutual assurance. In an earlier cut of this film we had the scene from “Dr. Strangelove” where Peter Sellers as [the title character] finds out that the Russians have triggered a doomsday [machine] [a mega-bomb designed to destroy the world if that country is attacked] that nobody knew about. “But the whole point of a doomsday [machine],” the president tells the Soviet ambassador, “is to let other people know you have a doomsday [machine].” We’re going down a path where these things have been decided without any discussion and that’s a little bit scary to me.
Q. Isn’t there a need for some secrecy? Didn’t Julian Assange [the subject of Gibney’s 2013 documentary “We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks”] release secrets that may have caused damage and cost lives?
A. I think Assange was reckless in the way he leaked material and in deciding what should or should not be released, what could get people killed. And that was a huge mistake both in the cause of transparency and in moral terms. Edward Snowden I think learned a lot from that. President Obama was supposed to have the most transparent administration in history. Clearly, it is not. He has gone much further than anyone else in bringing the hammer down on leaks he deems illegal. Everybody understands the government’s need to protect secrets which protect us but they also want to keep the government honest. But now secrecy has become de facto policy. I remember when I went to Guantanamo for “Taxi to the Dark Side” and we were shooting establishing shots. There was a rather big mountain on the east side of the bay. We were photographing it and this woman was waving her arms saying, “Stop it! That mountain is classified!” There might have been a few classified antennas on it, but as a mountain you could Google it on Google Earth and see it quite clearly.
Q. Do you think people really care about the truth? They seem happy with secrets and lies as long as they are reassured about what they believe in.
A. I think they do [care]. Look at Enron [subject of Gibney’s 2005 documentary “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room”], the Volkswagen scandals, Edward Snowden’s disclosures, Lance Armstrong’s deceptions [subject of Gibney’s 2013 documentary “The Armstrong Lie”]. People get angry when they feel they’ve been lied to. They care about the truth and when they discover someone has been lying to them they get mad.
Q. Is that how documentaries make a difference, getting the truth out here?
A. When you say make a difference I think people measure it too narrowly. I made a film about the Catholic Church clerical abuse and Pope Benedict [“Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God” in 2012] and two weeks later Benedict was out. I’m not taking credit. But it has an effect. “Taxi to the Dark Side” was taught, and I think still is, in many of the JAG schools in the military. It’s not like a vending machine where you put the message in and out pops a new law in Congress. That’s a good thing if it can happen and it’s a worthy goal but I don’t think the best films need that do that. I think the good ones stand the test of time. They act like a psychic time bomb inside somebody’s head.Interview was edited and condensed. Peter Keough can be reached at email@example.com.