Doc of the Day: Countdown to Zero Review - Dan Schindel

Doc of the Day: Countdown to Zero

Posted in Days of Docs by - March 17, 2012

Are you scared of nuclear weapons? If you aren’t, that’s because you don’t know enough about them.

Dir. Lucy Walker, 2010, 89 min

Countdown to Zero is a scary movie. Not nearly as scary as Collapse, which will have you mentally running a plan for what to do when the apocalypse comes before it’s halfway over, but still pretty darn scary. Fear of nuclear weapons seems like something that belongs in the past, with the Cold War. The best thing about this doc is how brusquely it swipes aside those assumptions.

The doc brings in politicians, scientists, military officials, and more to build its case. Valerie Plame, Jimmy Carter, Robert McNamara, Mikhail Gorbachev, Tony Blair, and many more extremely smart people all give us the history of the bomb and the current global situation with it. It’s just as educational as it is unnerving. At the least, you’ll be able to list all the nuclear-capable countries of the world off the top of your head, and in the order they gained the bomb to boot!

The film concentrates on one simple thesis: that the very existence of nuclear bombs means that one will inevitably be used, whether by accident or design. It makes this case by revealing just a few of the many tiny miscalculations over the decades which have nearly resulted in a nuclear detonation. It lays out the frightening simplicity with which a properly dedicated group could build a nuke. It turns out that creating the enriched uranium is ninety percent of the work. And there’s so much already-enriched uranium out there, which is demonstrably easy to steal and smuggle.

This movie will, frankly, make you wonder how we’ve gone this long without a city being destroyed. Perhaps the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagaski offset the probability somewhat. Yet the movie constructs a horrifically plausible scenario for terrorists to get ahold of and use a weapon. And, of course, hearing exactly what would happen if a nuke were used in a major city is the stuff to keep you up at night (short version: half the people die immediately, the other half die slowly and painfully).

This is a doc that is upfront and unapologetic in its aim. It’s right there on the poster: demand zero. There is no discussion in this film over the merits of a MAD world versus one without nukes. All of the different interviewees are staunch in their support of complete worldwide disarmament. I pride myself over being able to see multiple sides of an issue, but this is one subject where I cannot fathom the point of view of the opposition. The one reason I can think of is a failure of imagination, to grasp the full horror of what a nuclear explosion is capable of. Which seems accurate, as one statesman relates hearing another talk of how nuclear war wouldn’t be so bad, since “only” five hundred million people would die.

What sabotages Countdown to Zero‘s effectiveness is the clash between its atmosphere and its goal. The movie pulls its punches in a few places. I’m baffled that it held off for so late in the film to describe the effects of a nuclear blast. It should be a no-brainer that you set up the stakes near the beginning. But that pales next to how badly the ending looks next to the rest of the doc. After eighty minutes of doom and gloom, the movie pulls an abrupt tonal about-face in the last ten minutes. It tries to send a message of hope and optimism, and it just doesn’t work.

This is actually a trend I’ve noticed in issue-related documentaries lately. Having seen so many, I think it started with An Inconvenient Truth. I understand the compulsion to help viewers know what they can do about a social problem, but a rah-rah “we can do it!” sequence suggests a distrust of the subject. If you’ve done your job properly, we’ll want to seek possible answers on our own, not have them spoon-fed to us. Going back to Collapse again, that movie absolutely refuses to offer any hint of hopefulness, and it’s marvelously effective as a result.

I’m not saying that I wanted Countdown to Zero to be a dour, “we’re screwed” affair. After all, it is a fact that the worldwide nuclear situation is improving, what with the reduction in the number of existing weapons over the years, and recent political agreements. But the way the movie presents this information, it actually defuses a good deal of the urgency it previously created. Talking about how others are working to solve a problem subconsciously tells us that we don’t actually have to worry about it, that someone else will take care of it. It reduces the number of people who will feel the need to help. And we need as many people to push on this issue as possible. As the doc makes clear, we can’t afford to fail.

This post was written by
Dan Schindel is a writer and editor. He lives and works in Los Angeles.

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