How will humanity finally meet its end? Global warming? Overpopulation and the subsequent exhaustion of resources? Lucy Walker’s slick, fear-mongering Countdown to Zero makes a pretty good case for that old Cold War standby, nuclear annihilation. Full of amped up rhetoric and glossy graphics, along with a wealth of frightening information, Walker’s documentary is both a clear-sighted, easy-to-follow primer on the current state of the world’s nuclear situation and the cinematic equivalent of those Homeland Security color-coded threat levels. As when the government raises the alert from yellow to orange, the principal effect of watching the doc is to leave the viewer feeling terrified and helpless.
Calling on the testimony of a host of experts, from physicists to former national security advisors, as well as a generous selection of archival footage, Countdown to Zero makes the case for the myriad possibilities of imminent nuclear detonation. Consistently returning to a speech JFK made before the General Assembly of the UN in 1961 in which he identified “accident…miscalculation…[and] madness” as the three means by which bombs might be set off, the film explores each aspect of the trio. Dispensing with the first two rather cursorily (though not before informing us of some terrifying near-misses, as when through accident a B-52 carrying two nuclear bombs crashed over South Carolina in 1961, and when through miscalculation American rockets sent to Norway to investigate the Northern Lights in 1995 were mistaken for nuclear warheads by the Russian military who urged Yeltsin to retaliate), Walker focuses most of her attention on the third possibility.
Madness, as defined by the film, may consist of the actions of a terrorist group or the activity of a so-called “rogue state.” In the case of the former, while none of the major organizations such as Al Qaeda are believed to possess nuclear capabilities, the film builds a compelling case for the ease with which a small group of individuals can build a bomb capable of destroying a major city. Tracing the process from the obtaining of highly enriched uranium (the most difficult part of the job, but one for which black market possibilities exist in countries like the former Soviet republics and Turkey), through the relative ease by which the difficult-to-detect materials may be smuggled into a given country and the building of the bomb which, according to the physicists interviewed on screen, is a relatively simple matter, Countdown to Zero makes it seem like a miracle the world hasn’t yet been blown to bits.
In outlining the dangers posed by established countries such as Pakistan and North Korea, Walker provides an informative history of the nuclear buildup, which moves past the Cold War to more recent events in which new threats have emerged as world-destroying forces. Singling out A.Q. Khan, the father of Pakistan’s nuclear program, as one of the villains of the atomic game, the film explains how that scientist not only endowed his own country with deadly warheads, but sold the know-how and materials to North Korea and Iran before being detained when he tried to do the same for Libya. In scary bits of archival footage, the film shows Pakistanis celebrating their nuclear capabilities with a lively street celebration and thousands of North Koreans clapping in unison at a rally when Kim Jong-Il announces his obtaining of the bomb, the material a potent reminder of the national pride that attended nuclear armament in those two countries.
While the doc is effectively informative about an issue that clearly affects all the world’s citizenry, it raises some unique questions about those citizens’ need to know. All the information in the film is readily available elsewhere for anyone who cares to educate themselves, so it’s not like Walker is letting us in on privileged knowledge. But to outline such a dire series of facts to an audience that is powerless to change them seems like a futile project, while such hints of questionable politics, as an expert telling us that after a nuclear attack “you can forget about civil liberties,” seem to align the documentary with a government policy of scaring its citizens into submission. Enhanced by a ridiculously elevated rhetoric which begins with former C.I.A. covert operations officer Valerie Plame Wilson gravely intoning, “There’s no doubt in my mind that if terrorists had acquired a nuclear weapon, they would not hesitate to use it,” while Walker concocts a montage of the ruins of various worldwide terrorist attacks culminating in the smoking ruins of the World Trade Center, the film is calculated to prey on its audiences’ fears. From constant aerial views of major cities overlaid with circles to illustrate the range of potential nuclear destruction to a ludicrous finale in which a chorus of voices describes an apocalyptic scenario over footage of New Year’s partygoers in Time Square, the film is as loaded with assaultive audiovisuals as it is with sober, detailed information.
An activist doc this is not, even if a perfunctory conclusion, in which a score of difficult to achieve solutions to the nuclear problem are floated in rapid succession, represents a feeble attempt at encouragement. Most insultingly, in this final section, the director obliquely suggests popular protest as a means to encourage de-armament (hey, it worked during the Cold War), but with the ease by which a small group of individuals can build nuclear bombs fresh in his mind, only the most blindly optimistic viewer will still have confidence in the ability of established world powers to stop nuclear annihilation. If we believed Walker when she told us we’re doomed, then we sure as hell aren’t going to swallow this quixotic bit of horseshit.