Wanna see something really scary? In her smart, lively, often chilling documentary Countdown to Zero, writer-director Lucy Walker (The Devil’s Playground) builds an exploration of the world’s nuclear arms race around John F. Kennedy’s famed quote: “Every man, woman and child lives under a nuclear sword of Damocles, hanging by the most slender of threads, capable of being cut at any moment by accident or miscalculation or by madness.”
Accidents and miscalculations are frightening enough (the movie recounts a misunderstanding between the United States and Russia in 1995 that brought us this close to Armageddon). But the film’s primary focus is madness — specifically that of terrorists eager to obtain the highly enriched uranium that would allow them to carry out an attack of catastrophic proportions, sending the world into panic.
Countdown to Zero lays out specifically what someone would have to do to create a nuclear bomb — the cost and level of difficulty are fairly high — but it also reveals countless instances when uranium, the most elusive element in the equation, has gone missing without explanation (Russia is the biggest culprit). So long as the production of nuclear weapons continues, the film argues, a terrorist attack is not just a possibility; it is a probability — a simple matter of time.
Intercutting historical footage, man-on-the-street interviews, comments by scientists and former CIA agents and sit-downs with former heads of state (Tony Blair, Mikhail Gorbachev, Jimmy Carter and Pervez Musharraf), Countdown to Zero recounts the bomb’s history as well as its contemporary symbolic meaning to countries such as North Korea and Pakistan, which uses it so the rest of the world knows they must be taken seriously.
In the film’s most frightening sequence, Countdown to Zero imagines what would happen if someone detonated a bomb in the heart of a major city, such as New York City’s Times Square. The details are terrifying: Debris traveling at hundreds of miles an hour would rain on homes and buildings miles from ground zero. The movie makes no attempt to disguise its “No Nukes” stance, and Walker can’t find a single interview subject to disagree with her. Even J. Robert Oppenheimer, who invented the A-bomb and appears in vintage footage, talks about the ease with which the weapon could essentially destroy our world. Countdown to Zero takes that old Cold War chill and updates it to the present day.
Writer-director: Lucy Walker.
Producer: Lawrence Bender.
A Magnolia Pictures release. Running time: 91 minutes. Disturbing imagery.