Movie review: Countdown to Zero

Nuclear weapons are one of those quotidian threats which we prefer to forget. Since the demise of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s and the end of the Cold War, most of us would like to think the era of nuclear conspiracy is over, and that the bomb is no longer cause for concern. After all, this is 2011, not 1978; we’re all a bit beyond the constant political brinkmanship fuelled by a shared fear of mutually assured destruction.

What Lucy Walker’s 2010 documentary Countdown To Zero reveals is that while the above is partly true, the threat of a nuclear attack has not yet lifted like so much atomic fog.

A down-the-line documentary picture, Walker’s film features a series of interviews with an array of knowledgeable people, from politicians to launch personnel, all overwhelmingly in favour of total disarmament. There are tales of near-misses, apprehended smugglers and simple errors, but the overarching fear expressed is that of nuclear terrorism. Countdown‘s message, and that of its interviewees, is clear, echoing John F. Kennedy’s famous speech to the UN (itself replayed several times throughout) – “the weapons of war must be abolished before they abolish us”. A noble polemic indeed.

Aside from carrying a message with which it’s hard to disagree, Walker’s film has another huge strength: the quality of her talking heads. Tony Blair, Jimmy Carter and Mikhail Gorbachev all weigh in, as well as former Pakistan president Pervez Musharraf, former U.S. Secretary of Defence Robert McNamara, plus a host of hugely knowledgeable academics, authors and engineers. These are not the opinions of sidelined politicians looking for some publicity, nor the rantings of radical protest groups, but some of the most important people of the last fifty years.

Some of what’s revealed is shocking. Not merely the number of nuclear weapons still in existence – in excess of 20,000 – nor the worryingly radicalised and volatile nations who possess nuclear programmes, many of whom have an axe to grind – North Korea, Pakistan, India, Israel – but the fragility of the thread which separates us from nuclear war.

Kennedy’s aforementioned speech to the UN is the centrepiece of Walker’s argument, and his words are prescient. The “nuclear sword of Damocles” can still be felt, even today. Those who voice their concerns throughout Walker’s film clearly agree with Kennedy’s sentiments, as well of those of Manhattan Project scientist Robert Oppenheimer, who warned of nuclear terrorism scant years after the bomb’s first and only uses on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. Played to us, too, is his famous recounting of a passage from Bhagavad Gita: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”

Walker’s subjects explain the horrifying ease with which nuclear material can be stolen and smuggled, as well as the lax security surrounding nuclear sites in the former Soviet Union. Additionally, it’s usually through blind luck that the smugglers are caught, and even more surprisingly, it’s not highly-trained spies pinching the highly-enriched uranium or plutonium needed to make the weapons, but such criminal masterminds as a school teacher and a mechanic. Small amounts, stolen over time, are nearly impossible to find, even for computerised sensors, and even more easily transported.

Scary, right? Walker’s film certainly is. Yet this is also one of its biggest weaknesses. Although the abolition of all nuclear weapons is a laudable goal, it’s unclear whether constantly hammering your audience with the horrors of fallout is really the best way to foster support.

A sequence in which the horrifying results of a nuclear explosion in a major city are explained works well, but the non-stop fearmongering that Walker’s film is guilty of at times feels exploitative. A serious flaw also becomes apparent during discussions of nuclear terrorism. If it is something we should be so afraid of, and try to prevent at all costs, why spend a full half-hour detailing a simple method for illegally smuggling fissile material? Surely it’s counterproductive to state one minute that nuclear terrorism is a very real and frightening threat, and the next lay out a remarkably easy strategy for getting a bomb to a major U.S. city?

The other big issue is a self-inflicted one. Although there are some titanically important figures passing comment on the current nuclear situation, the most interesting viewpoints are not used enough: Blair is on-screen for perhaps a few minutes, Musharraf and Gorbachev given little more time. Although this is likely because Walker couldn’t talk to them for as long as, say, an engineer from Harvard, it still makes for frustrating viewing. With such erudite subjects, surely the film could be extended beyond its brisk 90 minutes to include more of what they had to say? When your film is entirely a product of its speakers, it should give them more time to say their piece.

Despite this, Walker’s film communicates its message with verve, and through its mixture of horror stories and frank appraisals is sure to make the unaware vigilant, and the disinterested intrigued.

Verdict: Even though it has a few fairly large problems, Countdown to Zero is at the very least an informative, and stark, picture of the current nuclear climate. Lucy Walker’s film is certainly not a landmark, and not as interesting as it could be, but remains a pretty solid documentary about a vastly important, and dangerous, subject.

Luke Grundy is a fervent assimilator of media living amid the bright lights of London, England. If he’s not watching films or listening to music, he’s probably asleep, eating or dead. An aspiring writer, journalist and musician, he is the creator of movie/music blog Odessa & Tucson and lives for epistemology.

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