Mark Reviews Movies


3 Stars (out of 4)

Director:  Lucy Walker

MPAA Rating: PG (for thematic material, images of destruction and incidental smoking)

Running Time: 1:31

Release Date: 7/23/10 (limited); 7/30/10 (wider)

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Review by Mark Dujsik | July 29, 2010

Lucy Walker's Countdown to Zero is successful and necessary fear-mongering. There is no hope at the end of this doomsday documentary, only a number to text to show one's support for nuclear disarmament. It's a sign of good intentions that really only highlights how bleak the entire scenario really is.

It is only a flash of light and a beat between the detonation of a nuclear weapon and destruction and death the world has only seen twice. Walker makes the argument that at least a third time is approaching—sooner rather than later—unless drastic steps are taken. These steps have been shared by American leaders of such disparate ideologies as John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, and, most recently, Barrack Obama. A call for nuclear disarmament is not a political platform; it is common sense.

Countdown to Zero, then, is admirably apolitical. The film begins by detailing the ease with which a group could smuggle highly enriched uranium or plutonium into the United States. It is a how-to manual, which one could label as irresponsible if not for the fact that just about all the specifics are known because they have been attempted already. Nuclear material can be grabbed from storage in Russia (which a former CIA operative says guards its potatoes better), brought in through Georgia, and then it's simply a matter of getting it into a crate aboard a cargo ship.

Surely, these activities can be stopped? Yes, they can and have been, the experts once in the field state. Although the detectors used at ports across the country are more likely to alert for cat litter than highly enriched uranium, and every crackdown on a black market deal or smuggling operation has been the result of nothing more than pure luck.

There is no blame to any person, political party, or country. It is, for all the doomsday, worst-case scenarios people use for political ends (In going along with the film's lack of a political position, it uses the same examples), the result of apathy or complacency. The weapons and materials are there. That is the way it has been; it is the way it is.

Mixed in with the interviews of former experts (CIA agents, a worker at a nuclear missile silo, and archive footage of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the "father of the atomic bomb"), world leaders (Jimmy Carter and Mikhai Gorbachev discuss the knowledge of having less than half an hour to decide whether to react with nuclear force), and political heavyweights (e.g., Robert McNamara) are talks with people on the streets across the globe. Are you scared of a nuclear attack? How many countries have nuclear weapons? How many of those weapons are there? Their answers are a reflection of the audience. As the numbers are revealed, the answer to that first question shifts.

Some of the anecdotes are alarming. One person recounts how a satellite launched to study the Northern Lights was mistaken for a possible nuclear launch by Russia, and against mandated protocol, Boris Yeltsin, not knowing there was no threat, decided not to retaliate. Others discuss accidents of bombers carrying nuclear arms crashing or submarines sinking. If they are recovered (It's a shock how many times the reports come back that they were not), sometimes there is evidence that only a few fail-safes stopped a detonation. The operator at the missile silo recalls watching Dr. Strangelove and thinking the whole film was wrong: It wouldn't take a general to start a falsified nuclear strike. He was a lieutenant and was privy to all the codes and procedures necessary to do so.

Countdown to Zero winds down (If one can call it that) with a reminder of how an atomic bomb works after detonation. The film is right on its most important point: How many nuclear weapons should there be in the world? Anything more than zero is unacceptable.

Copyright © 2010 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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