Alex Gibney Talks Cyber-Espionage of 'Zero Days' and "Thuggish Intimidation" After Scientology Doc (Q&A)

Alex Gibney Sundance H 2015

Alex Gibney Sundance H 2015

The Oscar-winning documentarian comments on the U.S.' mysterious silence on cyber warfare and Tom Cruise's "approval" of human-rights abuses: "The church has lived up to its reputation."

It's not easy making a living goring sacred cows, says documentarian Alex Gibney.

Still, the 62-year-old filmmaker has kept at it, with his exposés of corporate America (Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room), pedophilia in the Catholic Church (Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God), the U.S. military (Taxi to the Dark Side) and Scientology (Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief). Along the way, he’s collected an Oscar and five Emmys while attracting the ire of the entrenched interests who would rather their secrets be kept hidden.

Speaking to The Hollywood Reporter while finishing the mix for Zero Days —  his latest feature, about the dangers of cyber-espionage revealed by the Stuxnet computer worm of 2010 — Gibney reflected on the hidden "doomsday" threat of cyber-war and Scientology’s ongoing campaign against him and many others involved with Going Clear.

Were you surprised that Going Clear wasn’t nominated for an Oscar after the Church of Scientology actively campaigned against it?

I don't want to comment on the record about that. There definitely was a campaign against [the film], but I have no evidence that was responsible for influencing Academy voters. They didn’t vote for it and that’s that. ... I’ve been inundated with litigious letters [from the Church of Scientology] threatening lawsuits as has every venue where we exhibited this film, in this country and abroad. They haven’t sued, but they threatened a lot.

There’s been a high cost to releasing the film. I get accosted from time to time — you can see a few exchanges on YouTube — but the people who really took it on the chin are the people who spoke to me for the movie. They’ve been shadowed by private investigators and in ways that are intended to intimidate — woman have been threatened, people have had their lives destroyed economically, their houses taken away. It’s been thuggish intimidation. The church has lived up to its reputation.

Has there been any professional repercussions for you, working in Hollywood?

Not really. I can’t say there’s been any impact there. But in terms of the Hollywood element, I found it somewhat disturbing that Tom Cruise continues to manage to elude any responsibility for the ongoing human-rights abuses that are basically conducted in his name. He is the most visible and most vocal proponent of the religion. This isn’t about the creed of the church, it’s about the deed. By not investigating human-rights abuses in the church, he’s tacitly giving his approval to them.

You’ve explored an even more clandestine world in Zero Days — the world of cyber-espionage and malware hacking. What surprised you most in your investigation into the Stuxnet attack?

That this is a much bigger story than most people have realized. It was the first known attack in which malware crossed from the world of cyber to the world of physical — the Stuxnet worm took control of machines in an Iranian nuclear plant and made them spin widely out of control. And it was autonomous. Nobody pressed a button; it attacked on its own when it felt the time was right, a little like the doomsday device in Dr. Strangelove. The Stuxnet story showed the ability of a computer program to manipulate or destroy critical infrastructure: water treatment plants, electricity grids, transportation systems, everything essential to normal life. It shows the potential for cyber-war is both terrifying and comical, and I think it is something people have not paid sufficient attention to at all.

Did you discover anything in your research that shocked you?

Yes. The level of secrecy shocked me. Because this is a big deal — we are talking about a potential global cyber-war — and our leaders aren’t even talking about this. The launch of cyber-weapons, in the same way as nuclear weapons, needs a presidential signoff. But there’s been no official recognition (of the Stuxnet attack). It’s as if after 1945 the U.S. government were to have said, "What bomb?" This isn’t just a computer story; it’s a story of global espionage and war. It’s very much in the news now — that espionage played a role in the recent, controversial nuclear agreement with Iran. We are living with the consequences.

How great a threat does the film represent for you and your team? Angry hackers can wreak even more havoc that Scientologists.

I took as many precautions as I could. I have no idea how effective they were. This is very scary terrain. The possibility of an attack is ever-present. We live in a world of extraordinary vulnerability. The Sony hack made people aware of the possibility of something like this, but Stuxnet goes way beyond that. We have to demand more from our government in terms of transparency and protection. This film attempts to raise the questions of what the government is keeping secret — and why.