The most chilling film of the year has no vampires, zombies, or serial killers. It contains no thrills at all, just archival footage, news reports, graphics and a lot of policy wonks, politicians and scientists offering commentary. It's what they're talking about that'll turn your blood cold: nuclear annihilation and just how casually it could happen. Countdown to Zero is likely to score only minor returns at the box office, but it should strike a bull's-eye with its target audience of political junkies, some of whom may be in a position to help effect the change the documentary demands.
President John F. Kennedy gave a speech to the United Nations in 1961 in which he chillingly observed, "Every man, woman and child lives under a nuclear sword of Damocles." Countdown to Zero demonstrates exactly what he meant in a history lesson that begins with the splitting of the atom and expands to include the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the arms race, terrorism in a nuclear age and more. The doc covers near-misses and other almost catastrophes and offers scenarios over what could happen if a bomb were to fall into the wrong hands or a computer system fail. Security is another big issue in a world where a Pakistani physicist, Dr. A.Q. Khan, approached nuclear technology as a retail enterprise and where safeguards in the former Soviet republics are so lax that stealing the enriched uranium necessary to make a bomb is almost simpler than shoplifting from a 7-11.
Director Lucy Walker has amassed an impressive list of talking heads for her project including President Jimmy Carter, former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, recent Brit Prime Minister Tony Blair, Pakistani ex-President Pervez Musharraf, Carter's National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara and assorted CIA analysts (including Valerie Plame), scientists (including Robert Oppenheimer in archival footage) and other experts. There are charts and aerial maps showing what the blast patterns would be in the major cities of the world. Footage of terrorist attacks from around the world along with security tapes from the New York subway underline exactly how vulnerable the world is.
Some points are driven home over and over again and that repetition robs the doc of a bit of its power, but overall Countdown to Zero is effective and frightening. It is not a film without hope, as this is very much an advocacy film that suggests how the nuclear threat could be eliminated, but in making its argument, it emphasizes the worst case scenario, an almost lyrical imagining that has the force of a brutal punch to the gut.
Distributor: Magnolia Pictures
Director: Lucy Walker
Producer: Lawrence Bender
Rating: PG for thematic material, images of destruction and incidental smoking.
Running time: 90 min
Release Date: July 23 NY, July 30 LA