Countdown to Zero

By Michael T. Dennis
Concerns about nuclear weapons are brought into the present in the new documentary “Countdown to Zero.” A thorough, informative look at the state of nukes in today’s world, Lucy Walker’s poignant docu examines the dangers posed by rogue state and terrorist organizations, aiming to enter into what once was the exclusive domain of the superpowers.

 From its very first moments, “Countdown to Zero” is reminiscent of another cautionary documentary, “An Inconvenient Truth,” with which it shares a producer. Like that film, in which Al Gore expounded on the threat of global warming, “Countdown to Zero” presents a situation where the stakes couldn’t be higher. For starters, there are more than 23,000 nuclear bombs in the world today, along with enough nuclear material to build thousands more. Not only terrorists want it, but the powers that be seem unable to protect it.

“Countdown to Zero” is centered around a quote from John F. Kennedy, to which it returns on several occasions. Speaking to the U.N. in 1961, JFK noted, “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.”
What should be an easy sell in the post-9/11 world is actually a difficult proposition. Fear of nuclear attack seems like a remnant of the Cold War era, a nostalgic piece of 1950s lore. “Countdown to Zero” picks up the task of bringing relevance to the issue by keeping history in context and focusing instead on the very real threats that are out there today.
Early on the film presents images of an abandoned Russian nuclear site where people have been known to walk through holes in the rusted fence and take some uranium home with them. These images set up the film nicely, with half-sunken ships and broken windows at the processing facility offering a shocking contrast to the strict military efficiency we might expect to find in such a place.
The discussion then moves on to the frightening truth that it’s not actually that difficult to build a nuclear bomb, given enough time and money. From this point on there’s never a dull moment. “Countdown to Zero” blends archival footage with expert interviews; Jimmy Carter, Tony Blair, Mikhail Gorbachev, Robert McNamara, and former Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf all appear at length.
There are also well-placed on-the-street interviews, with everyday people in cities around the world answering simple questions that express our collective ignorance about the details of the nuclear issue, along with our prevailing accord that bombs are bad.
As the subject turns to why terrorists and nations like Iran want nuclear weapons, and how they might go about acquiring them, the archival footage starts to steal the show, providing many key moments. Robert Oppenheimer, the “Father of the Atomic Bomb,” reflects in the 1950s about the problems inherent in creating a weapon this powerful. “Countdown to Zero” also pays homage to Stanley Kubrick’s masterful, absurdist 1964 satire “Dr. Strangelove,” which matches the tone of the documentary perfectly.
Footage of launch preparedness drills show how quickly a team of technicians could put a warhead in the air. This old film is full of chilling details, like the fact that the ignition module bears a makeshift “GENTLY” sign at the point where the commanders insert their keys (“the button” is actually more like the cheap lock on a glove box).
Later, TV footage of a dejected President Reagan leaving the failed non-proliferation talks in Iceland shows how, even at the end of the Cold War, tensions were high enough to make the superpowers want to hold on to their stockpiles, prefiguring the problems we face today. This is paralleled by a much more recent clip of President Obama strutting to a podium to announce a new treaty with Russia that will serve as the first step toward nuclear reduction.
It is the current president’s only appearance in a topical film that wisely avoids playing politics in favor of telling the facts. In spite of occasional forays into related subject areas like the science behind nuclear bombs and the history of their development, “Countdown to Zero” is clearly intended for an audience with some level of pre-existing awareness. There’s no retreading the past or oversimplifying a half century of close calls and dangerous policies.
“Countdown to Zero” could serve as a good example of responsible documentary filmmaking, if it were not for some fear mongering towards the end. The image of a New Year’s Eve celebration in New York’s Times Square is juxtaposed with the ticking timer on a hypothetical homemade terrorist bomb hidden somewhere in the city. As people throw confetti, a voice-over describes the gruesome details of how exactly a nuclear blast destroys human bodies. This, predictably, is a low point, but it aptly sets up the proactive message of hope that comes next.
Eventually, the docu’s title takes on a new dimension, referring not only to the countdown until an imminent nuclear attack, but also the gradual countdown as nations destroy their bombs and place better safeguards on weapons caches and nuclear material, reducing the likelihood of such an attack to a very low probability. In part this seems like an idealist’s dream for the future, but it is also the solution that all the experts (and even those people on the streets) point to. With its activist message finally revealed, “Countdown to Zero” comes into focus for what it really wants to be: the first page in the final chapter of a book that many people probably thought was closed more than two decades ago.
Lawrence Bender Productions and Participant Media, in association with World Security Institute
Distributed by Magnolia Pictures
Written and directed by Lucy Walker
Producers, Lawrence Bender, Lisa Remington, Jeff Skoll, Diane Wayermann, Bruce Blair and Matt Brown
Original Music, Peter Golub
Cinematographers, Robert Chappell, Gary Clarke, Bryan Donnell, Nick Higgins
Editors, Brad Fuller, Brian Johnson