Countdown to Zero

Anyone who grew up during the Cold War can recall the fear and paranoia brought on by the U.S.-Soviet nuclear arms race. In a 1961 address to the UN General Assembly, Kennedy referred to the nuclear threat as a “sword of Damocles” that loomed over all of us, guaranteeing our destruction should we ever cut the cord that kept the sword at bay. Though the Cold War has since ended, and the U.S. and the nations of the former Soviet Union are now on friendly terms, Lucy Walker’s documentary “Countdown to Zero” makes its starkly clear that the world’s nuclear danger is no less imminent.

Using Kennedy’s cautionary speech as its impetus, “Countdown” analyzes just how easily a present-day nuclear scenario could be triggered. Since the end of the Cold War, the players in the world’s nuclear game have become more numerous, and security conditions increasingly volatile. Indeed, the nuclear threat in the 21st century may be even greater, given the easy availability of enriched uranium in the black market, the nuclear knowhow and anti-Western agenda of Iran, North Korea, and other “rogue” states, and the ever-looming possibility of human error by the so-called responsible nuclear powers.

“Countdown to Zero” looks at each of these scenarios – terrorism, miscalculation, or enemy strike – and describes with informed precision how each could wreak nuclear havoc (and, in a few instances, almost has). Walker weaves together archival footage and fluidly produced graphics with interviews featuring a Who’s Who of the world’s current or former powerbrokers, from heads of state – among them Mikhail Gorbachev, Pervez Musharraf, Jimmy Carter, and Tony Blair – to a range of political analysts, scientists, and intelligence experts. These interviews are the film’s selling point, lending it immediacy and credibility, and, in the case of an interview with an anti-terror cop on the Black Sea, a chilling urgency as he relates how often he’s intercepted attempts at smuggling uranium out of poorly guarded Soviet-era storage sites. From far-off ports, as Walker tells us, it’s a simple matter to conceal uranium inside shipping containers bound for terror groups in the U.S. Just as frightening is the 1995 episode in which Russia mistook an American rocket ferrying scientific instruments for an incoming missile and nearly launched a counterattack. Thankfully, Yeltsin wasn’t drunk at the time, and sober minds prevailed.

That so much in Walker’s documentary is absurdly shocking points to how desensitized many of us have become to the nuclear threat. But, ultimately, “Countdown to Zero” is also less a documentary in the classical sense and more an example of the form as activist moviemaking, something we’ve seen a lot of in recent years. “The Cove” and “Food, Inc.” are two recent examples that, like “Countdown to Zero,” have in mind a call-to-action agenda at the expense of allowing a viewer any room to contemplate the subject on his own. Still, it’s impossible not to share “Countdown to Zero’s” sense of urgency – the facts simply demand it – and, for that reason, the film deserves to be seen and to galvanize the anti-nuclear activist in all of us.

Grade: B+

Directed by: Lucy Walker
Written by: Lucy Walker
Cast: Graham Allison, James Baker III, Bruce Blair, Tony Blair, Zbigniew Brzezinski, Matthew Bunn, Richard Burt, Jimmy Carter, Mike Chinoy, Richard Cizik, Thomas D’Agostino, F.W. de Klerk, Pascal Fias, Alexander Glaser, Mikhail Gorbachev, Pervez Hoodbhoy, Andrew Koch, Pervez Musharraf, Ahmed Rashid, Valerie Plame Wilson


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