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Panic! That’s one apt, and perhaps welcome, reaction to Countdown to Zero, Lucy Walker’s documentary about the danger of nuclear weapons. More likely, though, the filmmakers (including the producers of Food, Inc. and An Inconvenient Truth) are aiming to elicit deep concern, not hide-under-your-desk alarm. To wit, their film’s evidence culminates not in a dénouement but a campaign announcement in which we learn that the title is not just a reference to a doomsday clock, but also a call to action. What do we want? No more nukes. When do we want it? Yesterday. Here’s our website.
Though it’s not exactly healthy to live in a hypervigilant state of what-if, Walker’s film is tight and persuasive enough to leave even the most carpe diem of viewers a wee bit rattled. Impeccably fleshed out from a JFK speech in which he refers to nuclear arms as a sword of Damocles that could be cut at any time by accident, miscalculation, or “madness,” the doc begins with the latter, focusing on terrorists and the ease with which they could obtain the materials to make crude bombs—which, while having nowhere near the power of government weapons, could still level a city.
Anyone who believes terrorists could get away with such an act today won’t be reassured by the numerous experts interviewed here—including nuclear physicists, outed CIA officer Valerie Plame, and various Pentagon employees—who cite our ports as being especially vulnerable to imported uranium or plutonium, which are easily camouflaged by lead. To penetrate that material, security detectors would have such high radiation sensitivity that everyday items would set them off. “You wanna smuggle a bomb into the United States?” one commentator says. “Ship it in a box with kitty litter.”
Even more disturbing is the film’s telling of how readily one of the approximately 23,000 nuclear weapons remaining in the world could be fired—as well as a day in 1995 when it was minutes from happening. A rising moon, a flock of geese, a malfunctioning computer chip, and even a training tape have sent individuals with the ability to kick-start launch procedures into a tizzy. The closest of close calls involves the mistaken identification of a U.S. rocket sent to study the Northern Lights that had Russian intelligence convinced its country was under attack. When you hear an interview subject say, “Fortunately, [Boris] Yeltsin wasn’t drunk,” you may start taking your bucket list a bit more seriously.
The film also discusses the history of the bomb, but Walker largely keeps the tech talk and graphics plain. The only oh-please sequence pops up near the end: footage of Times Square revelers on New Year’s Eve, faintly scored to Israel Kamakawiwo’ole’s ukulele cover of “Over the Rainbow” and interspersed with shots of missiles and maps of major cities marked with danger-zone radii. It’s a shamelessly heart-yanking scene, but the treacle won’t likely stay with you. Not after nearly 90 minutes of analysts insisting with simultaneous urgency and what-are-you-gonna-do shrugs that we’re this close to being obliterated. “It’s definitely not rocket science,” one arms expert says. “Rocket science is hard.”