Documentarian Alex Gibney (Oscar winner for his Afghanistan torture exposé Taxi to the Dark Side) continues his career of skillfully scaring the hell out of us. His latest, Zero Days, focuses on the cyber worm dubbed Stuxnet. It targeted Iran’s nuclear-enrichment facility at Natanz and successfully (for a time) sabotaged the plant’s centrifuges, delaying the country’s entrance into the atomic arms race. Then, the virus was detected and everything sort of went to hell.
What’s still officially denied, but everyone assumes to be true, is that the Stuxnet bug was co-created by the United States and Israel. The fact that neither nation will admit to this means that no official is legally allowed to discuss the cyber strike.
This is set up in the film’s opening moments as one white man after another declines to answer any questions about Stuxnet. “I don’t know,” one of them says. “But if I did, we wouldn’t talk about it anyway.” It’s a perfectly built stonewall. By the end of the film, it’s clear that this nondisclosure imperative is potentially a very scary thing. If there’s no freedom to discuss the uses and possible abuses of a new technological weapon, then there’s no way to regulate it.
If my description of Zero Days sounds a little vague, that’s because I’m not really good at writing about this sort of post-Future Shock scenario. I don’t speak geek. So it’s to director Gibney’s credit that the movie manages to be as clear as it is disturbing. It’s a cyber thriller I found much more engaging than the 2014 Oscar winner Citizenfour, a vital film but also kind of a boring one. Zero Days leaves you with the haunting idea that, at any moment, a new cyber virus could be released and transform the world we currently know into one that (in technological terms) is a kind of Stone Age.
Opening on July 15, the European film The Innocents spins a fascinating drama around a fact-based core. In 1945 Poland, a French doctor named Mathilde (Lou de Laâge), working with her country’s Red Cross unit, reluctantly responds to the pleas of a Polish nun who staggers into her triage clinic, claiming that a woman she knows is dying.
The woman is actually a fellow nun at the convent. And she’s in agony from being on the edge of a breech birth. Yeah, she’s pregnant. So are a bunch of her spiritual sisters, victims of rape by Russian soldiers who flooded into Poland to battle German troops. The drama in Innocents isn’t in the discovery of this situation, but in the nuns’ struggle — overseen by the abbess (Agata Kulesza, star of the fantastic Ida) — to keep the truth hidden from the locals.
At first this seems a little wrongheaded: Who could blame the nuns for being victims of assault? But director Anne Fontaine (Coco Before Chanel) shows us a very different world from the one we take for granted. Not only do the nuns wish to preserve their sense of honor, but the gender roles of mid-century Europe are fraught even in the non-Catholic world.
Mathilde, for instance, is admired as a doctor in her own right, but she remains on guard with her lover, a fellow doctor named Samuel (Vincent Macaigne) who sometimes treats her more as a conquest than as an equal. Like Mathilde herself, we never quite know if we can trust the man — especially when he starts prodding her about the unexplained time she spends away from the Red Cross clinic.
Uneven but always interesting, The Innocents is undermined slightly by its lead actress. Mathilde is gorgeous but a little blank — a plaster saint. More interesting is Agata Buzek as Maria, a nun who sampled more of life (and sex) than many of the other sisters before she joined the convent, and is able to find balance between the secular and spiritual worlds.
Zero Days. A documentary directed by Alex Gibney. Rated PG-13. 116 minutes. At Landmark Midtown Art Cinema.
The Innocents. With Lou de Laâge, Agata Buzek. Directed by Anne Fontaine. In French and Polish with subtitles. Rated PG-13. 115 minutes. At Landmark Midtown Art Cinema.