“Zero Days”–Weaponizing Cyberspace

Zero Days the movie

A documentary that sounds the alarm about the world of cyberwarfare, –the weaponizing of the Internet,– “Zero Days” (2016) is our nightmare.

Alex Gibney’s film tells the story of Stuxnet, the cyber espionage attack on an Iranian nuclear facility in 2010 .   A piece of self-replicating computer malware that the NSA and Mossad unleashed together, Stuxnet destroyed an Iranian nuclear facility’s centrifuges. Unintended consequences followed: collateral damage to massive computer systems outside of Iran, some of which belonged to US and Israeli allies. This clandestine mission gone awry opened the specter of the computer-as-weapon.

Frightening in its implications –for our utilities, medical systems, transportation systems, financial databases, everything that is computerized– “Zero Days” is a journey into the bowels of Stuxnet malware. Replicating with no endpoint until it reaches its target, Stuxnet had immediate and multiple paths for destroying the centrifuges essential to Iranian nuclear capabilities. The movie title “Zero Days” refers to the immediate activation of the malware. Once launched there is no way to call it back, not unlike a missile launch. The power of Stuxnet is beautifully envisioned, graphically and organically, as if it were a living, breathing organism.

The two heroes in “Zero Days” are the two Symantec (anti-virus) engineers who discover that Stuxnet malware is sophisticatedly worming its way inside Microsoft Word code. The target is the programmable logic controllers that direct equipment instrumental in operating Iran’s nuclear centrifuges. Similar controllers are used in a myriad of industrial facilities worldwide.

Like a riveting James Bond thriller, the viewer sees an unnamed, pixellated female disguised so that the covert NSA operation can be discussed publicly and candidly.What is particularly frightening is that none of these weaponized missions are fully under the control of any single government.What can be done by the US and Israel in Stuxnet can be done by others in retaliation.

This two-hour documentary is a warning to all of us of the lethal, unsettling potential of cyberwarfare. Our necessary dependence on computers has left the planet vulnerable to countless manipulations—both intentional and accidental. The result is a world that is more perplexing and dangerous than most of us think and few truly understand.

This is a doomsday scenario–if we don’t begin to understand the power of the computer as weapon. “Zero Days” is a prescient warning of things to come, a plea to be aware, to become familiar with our new reality. Otherwise, we will just blunder our way into the future waiting to be harmed by unseen powers.


“A Royal Affair”

A Royal Affair
A Royal Affair

A Royal Affair, a 2012 historical Danish film based on a true story, is a surprisingly delicious introduction to court intrigue in 18th century Denmark. Starring Mads Mikkelsen (“Doctor Strange”, “The Hunt”), Alicia Vikander (The Danish Girl”, “Ex Machina”) and Mikkel Følsgaard, A Royal Affair was nominated for both the Academy Award and the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film.

A Royal Affair centers on a delicate balancing act involving the young mad King Christian VII (an astonishing Følsgaard), the royal physician Struensee (Mikkelsen) and the young beautiful, highly educated Queen Caroline Mathilda (Vikander). Part forbidden romance between the queen and Struensee and part bromance between the mad king and his devotion to Struensee, this gripping tale changes the course of Danish history.

Soon after the royal marriage, Queen Caroline Mathilda realizes that her passion for the arts will be quashed, as many of her favorite books–some involving revolutionary political ideas–are banned by the state. Moreover, King Christian VII suffers from severe mental illness and is horrifying in his brutality, resulting in a deeply unhappy marriage for both of them.

When the German doctor Johann Struensee is recruited to be the mad king’s personal physician, he is soon the king’s confidant. The Danish Council takes advantage of King Christian’s disabling mental illness, ruling by fiat to serve their own interests against the welfare of the general populace. Struensee quietly begins advising the king, writing speeches which advocate his own progressive views based on Rousseau. Several reforms are passed but Struensee has alienated the aristocracy and threatens their wealth. The King, on the other hand, is soothed and becomes a more gentle and engaged human being with Struensee’s encouragement and support.

The Queen and Struensee fall in love and begin an affair, while Struensee simultaneously continues to become closer to the King and is given the title of Royal Advisor. Ultimately rendered de facto leader of Denmark, Struensee abolishes censorship and torture, and reduces the serfdom and peonage inherent in the the aristocratic system of property. Heartbroken by the secret life he leads as both the queen’s lover and the king’s confidant, Struensee straddles between the two: an impossible mix of allegiances.

A Royal Affair is an Oscar-worthy production with beautiful recreation of scenes and costumes, impeccable acting, and an original plot revolving around the machinations of power, a mad king, a depressed queen, and an idealistic and revolutionary physician who fails in his attempts to heal all wounds.

This Danish film is a cinematic treasure not to be missed.

Note: Available on Netflix as a DVD.


“Loving”–The Right to Choose


LOVING movie
LOVING movie

Loving, directed by Jeff Nichols (“Mud”), is based on Richard and Mildred Loving, the plaintiffs in the landmark 1967 U.S. Supreme Court case Loving v. Virginia invalidating state laws prohibiting interracial marriage. (The archaic term “miscegenation” was used in those days.) Much of the United States  had anti-miscegenation laws. It wasn’t until 1967 that the Supreme Court struck down those statutes.

Loving opens as a tender romance between Richard Loving a white construction worker and tinkerer in car mechanics (the relative newcomer Joel Edgerton, a Golden Globe nominee), and a shy black and American Indian woman named Mildred (Academy Award-nominated Ruth Negga who gives a startlingly nuanced performance). Loving starts out revealing that Richard and Mildred’s parents fear repercussions for their illicit love. Their fears were well founded. The Lovings were arrested, jailed and convicted.   Ordered to never set foot in Virginia again, Richard and Mildred are exiled from their families. But neither family ever abandons their exceptional support for Richard and Mildred.

There is nothing dangerous or subversive about their marriage. There is nothing radical. Yet  “God created separate races and placed them at separate points on the globe, thereby never intending for them to mix.” This was one legal argument asserted in 1958 by the Virginia state court resulting in Richard and Mildred Loving’s lives (and eventually that of their three children) becoming a living hell.

Given the legal ultimatum to separate or be exiled from Virginia, the Lovings first move to D.C. where there were no laws forbidding interracial marriage. But Mildred, now pregnant, misses the quiet country lifestyle as well as her parents and siblings. She wants her mother to be there for the birth of their first child. They sneak back into Virginia, and are arrested.


This very private, unassuming couple are about the least likely people to become the center of one of the most important Supreme Court cases in history. Such ordinariness magnifies the movie’s emotional impact. We’re invested in them as simple people who just want to be left alone to build their home and raise their family. Their lives would no longer be their own, transformed into sensationalistic magazine cover stories.

For five long years Mildred considers filing a lawsuit. Richard is reluctant and unconvinced, accepting the government’s exile as their fate. In contrast, this timid woman fights the injustice of their situation, forced to engage in extraordinary acts. Everyone else underestimates her tenacity, her belief in their love and respect for each other.

Inspired by the burgeoning civil rights movement, Mildred writes a letter to Attorney General Robert Kennedy who recommends the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) . Lawyer Bernard S. Cohen , an inexperienced young ACLU attorney (played by the surprisingly versatile Nick Kroll), sees the opportunity to overturn the ban against interracial marriage nationally. Cohen accepts the case under the guidance of constitutional law expert Phil Hirschkop.

After years of losses and appeals, the Lovings have their day in court and their hard-won victory.

Loving is not about star power. It is about great acting. The couple’s name underscores the morality of a marriage viewed as threatening to others, Shakespearean no less than “Romeo and Juliet”. Nonetheless, the couple’s family name serves as a form of shorthand and double-meaning for the heart of this moving and memorable film.

 The film’s noticeable weakness is in not supplying more legal and historical context for the Loving case. Loving is about hope, hope in the power of the individual –in this case, the least revolutionary type–to change the fabric of the nation.   Sometimes a revolution starts very quietly, not with a bang.

Note:   This is the 50th year anniversary of Loving v Virginia. A 1958 Gallup poll showed that 94 percent of white Americans disapproved of interracial marriage. Today 16% of white Americans disapprove.

Bernie Cohen, authored a 2007 the Huffington Post entry in support of same-sex marriage, citing Loving v. Virginia.

Manchester by the Sea– Rocking the Boat


Manchester by the Sea

In the brooding film, Manchester by the Sea, we watch a grief-stricken irritable loner, Lee Chandler (2017 Academy Award Best Actor Casey Affleck) drown in self-effacing pain and rage. He works as a handyman in a Boston apartment complex and acts out his anger in meaningless bar fights and bullying of tenants.

Lee receives a phone call that changes his life. His older brother, Joe (played by Kyle Chandler), has died of a heart attack and Lee has been designated as the legal guardian of his sullen teenage son, Patrick (the remarkable Lucas Hedges). Dreading returning to his hometown, Manchester, in order to care for his nephew, we see–through a series of flashbacks– why Lee is so reluctant to return. The unspeakable tragedy which caused him to run away is revealed. Caught in depression and grief, he is incapable of displaying emotion towards his nephew, his ex-wife (the wondrous Michelle Williams), or what is left of his family.

The central plot is all about Lee and his psychological journey through tragedy and torment.   But it is also about his nephew, Patrick, who is struggling with his own grief over his father’s death as well as his abandonment by his alcoholic mother.

Manchester by the Sea is a serious film, but not a great one. It’s slow moving enough to notice, especially the second half’s slackening pace. The viewer has to work patiently to understand the cutting back and forth between past and present, the only clue to the time-travel being the scenes where Patrick’s father, Joe, is still alive.

This movie has something to say, but doesn’t say it very well.  Michelle Williams saves this movie from an even rockier ride. Though she has a small role as Lee’s ex-wife Randi, she gives us a gut-wrenching portrait of a damaged woman, injured by the tragedy, and regretting the horrifying invective she threw at Lee in a moment of tremendous heartbreak for both of them. In a powerful confrontation with Lee, this small yet significant performance is a treasure to behold. Her wounds are still trying to heal.

Casey Affleck, on the other hand, gives us a character with mannerisms that are unbelievable and dissonant with the emotional nature of the character he is playing. His portrait of Lee’s emotional detachment from the rest of the world is wooden with zero visual affect. Yes, he is traumatized so he can’t recapture the person he once was. None of us can. Yes, he needs to take care of himself first.

No one will punish Lee for what he did, for what he knows he did. So he spends the rest of his days punishing himself, consumed with guilt. And the only way he knows how to punish himself is by hurting others and pushing them away. Why didn’t they cast an actor adept at showing anguish in his eyes, visually, –in his soul–even while enduring an all-consuming suffering?

There are narrow ways men are allowed to deal with their feelings because they consider vulnerability to be weakness. A stunning performance does just that–show the vulnerability behind the facade. Manchester by the Sea, and particularly Casey Affleck, doesn’t seem interested in exploring mental illness more deeply and more courageously, showing more of its symptoms through a variety of facial expressions, at least in the eyes which are not shut down by the emotions they conceal. They should be haunting and disturbing, flecks of passion and damage.

This is Manchester by the Sea’s most glaring fault: This film misses an opportunity to look more critically and more complexly at how things are for someone so grief-stricken. But Manchester by the Sea also fails to examine the dangers of masculinity closing men off from their own feelings or experiences, rendering them emotionally broken. This movie received almost universal adulation but it is far less award-worthy.

Sorry, all of you who voted for it.