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Countdown to Zero (2010) **

July 28, 2010


produced by: Lawrence Bender

directed by: Lucy Walker

rated PG (for thematic material, images of destruction and incidental smoking)

90 min.

U.S. release date: July, 23, 2010


All documentaries have a purpose and a perspective and are rarely entertaining. That’s at least my experience. And that’s fine when many of then are intended to educate, create awareness and motivate some form of action on the part of the viewer. Yet at the end of this film there’s not much we can do about nuclear proliferation or the fact that it is easier now to create a nuclear weapon than it was back in the cold war. What exactly are we to do with this information except be scared?

Beyond some history and discoveries on the world’s handling of nuclear arms over the past several decades (as well as some depressing stats) it was hard to decipher exactly what director Lucy Walker wants to leave viewers with. Its narrated by actor Gary Oldman, has some telling blurbs and reflections by former leaders and statesmen like: Tony Blair, Jimmy Carter, Mikhail Gorbachev, Robert McNamara, Pervez Musharraf, and Valerie Plame Wilson….but something is missing. The topic seems kinda old hat, at first, even moot. Yes, nuclear weapons are awful in that they only have one purpose: annihilation of life. Yes, we all agree that the weapons should be obliterated but this was already covered in “Superman IV: Quest for Peace” and yet here we are with a documentary that stresses we should be mindful (aware?) that terrorists could possibly acquire nuclear missiles. What exactly can I do with that information?

Fear and worry of nuclear devastation has been around forever. I grew up with it and so did you and your parents. But is maintaining such a phobia a relic of The Cold War? Maybe and not really. A good majority of passerbys on the street are interviewed here and they don’t seem too concerned about any nuclear threat. Clearly, it’s not on the forefront of everyone’s minds as it was twenty years ago. Now, that could be because the U.S. and Russia are no longer arch enemies, which, this film shows, makes it easier for those who so desire to take aim at abandoned Russian stockpiles. These are the people who give little thought to killing themselves along with millions of others in such catastrophic tragedy.


While the terrorists are depicted as the “current” enemy, er, threat, two things remain most concerning: how easy it is to get materials today and how many times close calls there have been in the past. The dangers of Al-Qaida are touched upon as are bin Laden’s desire to obliterate 4 million Americans in retribution for the Islamic deaths which he blames on U.S. policy. Not really any new information there. But what is more alarming is when the film delivers accounts of near-misses and other mishaps in the 80’s and 90’s. We are continuously barraged with “breaking news” bits about how terrorists are acquiring uranium or plutonium but when we’re told that Armageddon almost came to us due to a technical glitch or human error, well….that’s frightening!

I didn’t know that in 1995 Russia mistook a rocket launch funded by NASA to study the Northern Lights as a nuclear first strike. Or that a flock of geese were once mistaken for a bomb raid. Even a rising moon once set off alarms! I kid not. I also learned that the end of existence was averted back in the day, because Russian President Boris Yeltsin happened to be sober when he violated his country’s directive, choosing instead to wait to launch a counter-attack on the U.S. It is this kind of information that is alarming to me, instead of the  While that anecdote is alarming, much of the historical info in “Countdown to Zero” is just that.

Walker’s previous credits have been two other documentaries, the Mt. Everest chronicle “Blindsight” from 2006 and a look at Amish teens in 2002’s “Devil’s Playground”, none of which I’ve seen but both sound interesting. Backed by producer Lawrence Bender (who usually works with Quentin Tarantino) and distributed by Magnolia Pictures, Walker provides a film that is well shot and edited, with expected elements including: animated moments, relevant footage, dramatic recreations and pulsing mood music (in this case, it seems like  Radiohead) that seamlessly fit into a tidy doc. Before we hear Pearl Jam’s “The Fixer” blast its way through the closing credits, Walker gives us some text instructions to apparently do our part and protest nuclear arms, something that has been protested forever. In the end, despite her valid attempts to create a current awareness, the film comes across as a polished production that could be paired down to an hour-long special on The History Channel.


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