Lucy Walker’s (Devil’s Playground) new documentary, Countdown to Zero, delivers a relatively straightforward argument for nuclear disarmament. Using archival footage and interviews with nuclear scientists and former heads of state – including Mikhail Gorbachev, Tony Blair and Jimmy Carter – Walker touches on the histories of the atomic bomb, nuclear proliferation and the Cold War. She informs her audience of the science behind nuclear warfare, the effects of radiation and what would likely happen if a warhead were dropped on an American city.
“Every man, woman and child lives under a nuclear sword of Damocles, hanging by the slenderest of threads, capable of being cut at any moment by accident or miscalculation or by madness. The weapons of war must be abolished before they abolish us.”
This nearly fifty-year-old declaration by Cold War-era commander-in-chief, John F. Kennedy, becomes Walker’s thesis; she constructs her film around each threat mentioned by the late president.
Beginning with “madness,” Zero explores the threat of nuclear terrorism. The film chronicles Al-Qaeda’s attempts at securing nuclear material, including highly enriched uranium. We are taught how to buy or steal uranium – a surprisingly easy and affordable feat – as well as how to get it into the United States (also very easy, relatively speaking). Among the most frightening pieces of information here is the remarkable failure rate in catching nuclear thieves and smugglers; usually the only time governments find out that nuclear materials or weapons have been stolen is when they turn up somewhere else.
Moving on to “accident,” Walker examines the various moments in US and world history when weapons have been accidentally dropped, lost or nearly detonated. This chapter is loaded with old news footage describing plane crashes where the vehicles involved were carrying bombs, the sinking of naval war-ships or the flat-out misplacement of missiles. One would think that knowing just one of these instruments could wipe out an entire city would be enough incentive to keep a better eye on them, but apparently that is not the case.
The “miscalculation” chapter is, in my book, the scariest of the three. Here is where we spend the most time dealing with the various moments in which the Cold War began warming up. When tensions are high, as they were and still are with Russia and now China, proper communication is essential. With nuclear weapons constantly ready to be fired at a moment’s notice, misinformation could be catastrophic. The incorrect perception of a threat could result the obliteration of entire populations. An instance is recounted in which a US rocket test off the coast of Iceland was mistaken by Russia as a missile launch. We had told Russian officials that the test would be taking place, but someone forgot to pass along the word to those in charge of declaring nuclear war. The button was on the table, ready to be pressed, but miraculously a “funny feeling” kept then-president Boris Yeltsin from depressing it.
Countdown to Zero is at its most credible when sticking to the facts, exploring history. Conversely, the film is most entertaining when toying with speculation. The fact is what has happened is far less interesting that what almost happened or what could happen in regards to nuclear warfare. Walker insists that the way to ensure worldwide safety is through the gradual destruction of all nuclear weapons. She suggests that disarmament is the only option, and that the possibility of nuclear holocaust is no longer a substantial deterrent.
Whether or not this is correct can be, and will be, debated for much longer than this film stays on anyone’s radar. Countdown to Zero is a good introduction into the subject and is very watchable, but lacks the cinematic flair that elevates documentaries from good to great. The movie opens with a History Channel logo (a producing partner) which is appropriate because this felt a bit more like a TV special than the type of movie I’d seek out in theatres. Still, Walker succeeds in delivering her message, and Countdown to Zero is an effective piece of journalism.