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Countdown to Zero

As I sit down to review this documentary about the probability (not possibility) of nuclear catastrophe, I am looking at a front page of the Buffalo Evening News dated July 20, 1956. The headline: “125,000 KNOWN DEAD, DOWNTOWN IN RUINS.” A photograph shows Buffalo’s City Hall collapsing in flames—as if any such photograph would have survived the two nuclear bombs that the “emergency edition” reports to have been dropped on the city and the northern suburbs. The fake newspaper was produced for Operation Alert, a nationwide Civil Defense training exercise that encouraged Americans to practice taking cover and evacuating urban areas in preparation for a nuclear attack. The program was ended in 1962 because of public protests led by pacifists and young mothers who felt the campaign was needlessly frightening and absolutely pointless.

Countdown to Zero certainly does a more terrifying job than that sham newspaper of explaining how and why a nuclear device might be used in today’s political environment, as well as the consequences of detonation in a civilian area. While the film belongs to the lineage of nuclear scare films like The Day After, Threads, Fail Safe, and Special Bulletin, it also wears its activist agenda on its sleeve: The producers were inspired by the success of Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth in raising consciousness about global warming. Documentarian Lucy Walker interviewed more than 80 people for the project, an indisputably credible bunch including former CIA agent Valerie Plame Wilson; former US president Jimmy Carter and his national security advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski; former Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev; former US secretary of defense Robert McNamara; former British prime minister Tony Blair; former Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf; and a host of historians, scientists, security experts, spooks, and law enforcement officials. The most alarming of these is the chief nuclear investigator for the Republic of Georgia, shown only in silhouette, who describes the smuggling of highly enriched uranium from the former Soviet Union through his country and into the Middle East and beyond.

As a narrative device, the film uses a famous speech by John F. Kennedy: “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. The weapons of war must be abolished before they abolish us.” After carefully, terrifyingly describing how close we are to disaster—inflicted by terrorists, by the failure of safeguards, by whatever—Walker ends the film with a call to arms: a number to text and a website to visit to learn how to help the movement to abolish nuclear arms. This is an informative film and well worth watching.

geoff kelly

Watch the trailer for Countdown to Zero

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