Countdown to Zero

Countdown to Zero, the new documentary film directed by Lucy Walker, is nothing less than chilling. It aims to raise awareness about the nuclear arms race, and how the dangers of nuclear bombs are closer to home than we think – making for an experience more nail biting than a horror film.

Countdown to Zero is produced by Lawrence Bender (who also brought us An Inconvenient Truth) so there’s a clue about the kind of documentary this is – half film and half campaign. It focuses on a famous John F Kennedy speech addressed to the United Nations in 1961, and on one quote in particular: “Every man, woman and child lives under a nuclear sword of Damocles, hanging by the slenderest of threads, capable of being cut at any moment by accident or miscalculation or by madness”. This sums up the message of the film – that we are living on borrowed time, completely unaware of our vulnerability to total flamin’ nuclear destruction.

Walker really drives the idea of how simple it is to get hold of the materials to make these bombs, and how straightforward their design is. If the scientists of the film are to be believed, you could saunter into Russia and grab a whole bunch of highly enriched uranium with no problem. Not only this, you could smuggle it into America in a shoebox and then easily (really?) make a bomb of it.

One of the most memorable points of the film is a story about an American nuclear submarine positioned off the coast of Norway that sent up a completely harmless missile, which was mistaken by the Russians for a nuclear bomb. Russia’s President had twelve minutes to respond and if he had, he could have launched a full-scale nuclear attack on multiple U.S. cities.

These kind of stories provide the dramatic effect of Countdown to Zero, as we are prompted to think about the millions of people who, according to the film, were only thirty minutes from death and completely unaware of it. Or the fact that we could have been. Or are. Or will be. Ahhhh

In the opening credits the slogan for anti-nuclear weapons organisation Global Zero, “A World Without Nuclear Weapons”, marks the fact that Countdown to Zero is a very biased film, arguing for worldwide nuclear disarmament. But after watching the ninety minute feature, I for one am persuaded that there is really only side to this argument, and in that sense, the film did its job. It is very successful at making you feel completely unsafe, but also completely helpless, which – for a film that is supposed to raise awareness for a campaign – is an odd combination. Rather than spurring the viewer into activism, I was more inclined to build myself an Anderson shelter at the next available moment.

In terms of documentary filmmaking, Countdown to Zero is not a great feat in creativity or originality; but its standout quality is the calibre of its interviewees. Numerous political leaders including Tony Blair, Jimmy Carter, and Mikhail Gorbachev, give a sense of authenticity and help to steer the film away from a Michael Moore-esque conspiracy trap. It was refreshing for a documentary to really teach the history about an issue that is relevant and being discussed in today’s politics, and this is something the film does well.

Towards the end of Countdown to Zero we are painted a horrific picture of what would actually happen if one of these bombs fell in the wrong place, and this section is probably the most shocking. There is no doubt Lucy Walker saved this for the final moments to maximise effect and draw out the thinking-time as we exit the cinema. But while the argument was convincing, the film at times bordered on the edge of scaremongering. It seemed to terrify the audience into accepting its argument.

Saying this, there is something inherent in the idea of nuclear weapons which is, well, downright terrifying, and the film communicated this to great effect. So by educational and campaign standards, Countdown to Zero was a success. As a piece of cinema? Perhaps not.

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