Between economic meltdowns and catastrophic oil spills, it’s easy to forget we’re still perched on the brink of nuclear annihilation, too. I know, nukes are so 1985, yet Lucy Walker’s slick doc serves as a reminder that our old sum of all fears wasn’t quite laid to rest at the end of the Cold War. In fact, she makes a case that things have actually gotten even more dangerous.
Mikhail Gorbachev, Jimmy Carter, Tony Blair, Valerie Plame Wilson and even the late Robert McNamara all scare the living shit out of us. The film’s point, delivered in the propulsive glossy style of Participant Media agit-docs like An Inconvenient Truth and The Cove , is that nuclear stockpiles are less secure than ever before, particularly in what remains of the Soviet Union. Worse, the ‘50s centrifuge technology required to split atoms is no longer out of reach for some of the more dubious characters on the international scene.
Combining a cursory Cold-War overview with unsettling facts about enriched uranium, the savvily edited Countdown to Zero incorporates interviews with regular folks who haven’t given much thought to nuclear weapons since the Berlin Wall fell. Walker emphasizes the mass in “mass destruction,” favoring shots of Times Square crowds celebrating New Year’s Eve, while Radiohead’s moody “Reckoner” dampens the tone and ominous sound bites fortell the apocalypse.
The movie’s strong suit is harrowing anecdotes, especially one under-reported goof on our part that almost mushroomed into a Dr. Strangelove scenario. At one point, Valerie Plame Wilson gives a brief lesson on how easy it is to smuggle fissile material.
Even at 91 minutes, Countdown to Zero can’t help repeating itself. Walker makes her points early and often. The late-movie activist uplift rings hollow, with too many PowerPoint slogans and an allegedly inspirational Pearl Jam song. All these Participant Media seem to end with a title card urging us to do our part by sending text messages to their website, but will that really aid the cause of nonproliferation?