Alex Gibney's documentary Zero Days centres on the Stuxnet computer virus, which targeted mechanical equipment in an Iranian nuclear facility resulting in the destruction of many of its centrifuges. The film delves into the history, effects and ongoing implications of this malware and argues that it was developed by the US and Israeli governments. I came out of the film thinking "great story, but I wish it was a podcast".
Documentary filmmaking suits some stories better than others. If you're going to ask people to sit quietly in a dark room full of strangers for two hours to watch your movie, you need to give them something good to look at. Visually, Zero Days didn't manage to keep me interested for its full running time, in large part because I wasn't captivated by the images on screen. In saying that, Gibney did have some pretty tough constraints to contend with when bringing this story to the screen — I'll unpack these in the next couple of paragraphs.
Some documentaries are mainly comprised of footage shot by the filmmaker, letting the actions and words of the subjects tell a story as it unfolds. Since Zero Days unpicks an event that took place in the past, footage couldn't be generated as the story unfolded. This isn’t a problem for some filmmakers — Ron Howard had certainly had lots to work with when making his recent Beatles documentary. However, due to the inner workings of computers being largely un-filmable and the high level of secrecy surrounding many parts of the story, this wasn't the case for Zero Days.
In the absence of archive footage to draw on, it's up to the filmmaker to build an interesting visual element to accompany the story. Zero Days is dominated by fairly bland talking heads — a merry-go-round of predominantly white, middle-aged men talking in nondescript rooms about things that happened in a computer (although there was some respite later in the film thanks to gender diversity and a splash of computer-generated pizazz). While these experts did fill the space, they didn't draw the audience in — think Iggy Pop's gesture-laden appearance in Jim Jarmusch's recent Stooges documentary for an example of a compelling subject that lights up the screen.
Finally, Gibney was faced with the challenge of how to portray the inner workings of computers on screen. Fiction film has grappled with this conundrum for decades, resulting in some pretty genius workarounds (who doesn't love the anthropomorphised computer programmes in Tron?). While I'm not sure this approach would work so well for Zero Days, the screen was too often filled with lines of code that didn't bring anything extra to my viewing experience (although I am code-illiterate).
Given these tricky constraints, I was left wondering 'why make a film at all'? I think Zero Days tells a story that deserves to be heard. However, the lack of an exciting visual element makes me think it would be much better on the radio or a podcast. But if Alex Gibney says he wants to make a film about a computer virus, I suppose a studio might not be inclined to argue. If anyone could make Stuxnet exciting on the big screen, it’s probably him. While I'd love people to ask "what's the right medium for this story" when they have an idea, for those already beholden to one medium, perhaps they could ask "is this the right tale for me?" before launching into a project.