At the end of last year, I made a modest but achievable resolution: In 2016, I’d write about a few less documentaries (and a few more fictional features) than I’d written about in 2015. And so far, I think I’ve done pretty well: By my count, only four of the 33 films discussed this year in Big Screen Berkeley have been docs. Mission accomplished!
After zigging through the last six months, however, it’s now time to zag in the opposite direction. This weekend, two very different – but equally intriguing – documentaries open in the East Bay.
Zero Days (opening at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas on Friday, July 8) is the latest effort from Academy Award winner Alex Gibney (Taxi to the Dark Side). The film examines one facet of the West’s war against Iran’s nuclear program – a program that many Western governments insisted, despite repeated Iranian denials and evidence to the contrary, was a precursor to nuclear weapons.
While Israel’s Mossad fought the war overtly (assassinating four Iranian nuclear scientists in the process), the American national security state covertly developed software intended to cripple the Islamic Republic’s atomic progress. A collaborative effort of the CIA, the NSA, and the military’s Cyber Command, the result was a highly complex and dangerous piece of malware known by its creators as Operation Olympic Games and dubbed Stuxnet by anti-virus researchers.
Those who studied the virus (including Symantec and Kaspersky Labs) discovered that Stuxnet was designed for one purpose: to disrupt or destroy the centrifuges housed at Iran’s Natanz Nuclear Facility. They also determined that the virus was of such complexity that it could only have been developed by a nation-state.
Gibney does an excellent job examining the initial discovery of Stuxnet, its eventual spread worldwide, and the dangers it will ultimately pose to the United States as the inevitable cyber-war blowback arrives. Unfortunately, he’s less careful and curious about other aspects of the case.
Most documentaries rely on talking heads to stitch together their narrative, and Zero Days is no exception, featuring a full-court press of deep state apologists (including the execrable Michael Hayden, Henry Jackson Society member Olli Heinonen, and others) to convince us that Iran really did intend to develop nuclear weapons. There are no Iranians on hand to counter this narrative, nor is there is a single skeptical journalist (such as the well-respected and well-informed Gareth Porter).
While Zero Days does acknowledge that the Iranian program began thanks to the United States (who gifted the Shah with a nuclear research center in 1967), it also manages the remarkable feat of mentioning the word ‘Dimona’ without acknowledging this is the home of Israel’s covert and illegal nuclear weapons factory.
Gibney’s decision to frame his narrative from the perspective of American power brokers leaves this film feeling as much Western propaganda piece as a muck-raking revelation. As good as it is in parts, it could (and should) have been much more.
If you saw The Winding Stream earlier this year, you’ll already be somewhat familiar with Dr. John Brinkley. Now Brinkley has his own documentary feature, Nuts!, which opens at Rialto Cinemas Elmwood on July 8.
In brief: Brinkley was an infamous snake-oil salesman and radio bigwig who insinuated his way into the good graces of the musical Carter Family. Nuts! fleshes out his story, which – depending on how you feel about goat testicles – is a very good thing indeed. Highly recommended!
Berkeleyside’s film writer John Seal writes a column in The Phantom of the Movies’ Videoscope, an old-fashioned paper magazine, published quarterly. Read more from Big Screen Berkeley on Berkeleyside.
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