Countdown to Zero (United States, 2010)

July 29, 2010
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Countdown to Zero Poster

Countdown to Zero feels just like a History Channel documentary, which is unsurprising when one considers that the movie was produced by none other than The History Channel. As with most of their fare, this one mixes archived footage with talking head interviews; the resulting product is superficial, but provides a decent overview for the uninitiated while not adding much to the databank for those with an understanding of the situation. Countdown to Zero seeks to frighten by arguing its thesis that, although the Cold War and its associated arms race are over, the danger of a nuclear holocaust is as great - if not greater - than ever. However, the tone is a little too dry and professorial to inspire more than a transitory shiver.

For those of a certain age, much of their lives were lived with the recognition that Armageddon was only a few pushed buttons away. The collapse of the Soviet Union changed the equation; Russia might not be our bosom buddy, but neither were they the threat they had once been. Suddenly, terms like "DefCon", "detante", and "SALT" faded from the newspapers and into history. But to believe the nuclear threat is a thing of the past is to live in a fool's paradise. As long as the weapons exist, they can be used. We have traded the dubious security of MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction), which worked for four decades, for the greater uncertainty of rogue terrorism in the post-9/11 era.

Countdown to Zero uses the famous speech given by John F. Kennedy to the U.N. General Assembly on September 25, 1961 as the documentary's springboard. The most often-quoted lines are as follows: "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 providing a perfunctory history of nuclear weapons, director Lucy Walker explores the kinds of "accidents", "miscalculations", and "madness" that could lead to the world becoming an inhospitable wasteland.

Walker's explorations, which are not well-organized and follow an almost stream-of-consciousness approach to the subject, cover a lot of ground. She muses at some length about the potential for a terrorist organization to explode a nuclear bomb, arguing that the greatest difficulty faced by any al-Queda-like group to execute such an attack is obtaining the fuel (either highly enriched uranium or plutonium). Making the bomb and smuggling it into the United States are deemed insignificant obstacles. College graduate students can make nuclear weapons (without the uranium) and it would be charitable to call our ports porous. Of course, there has as yet been no nuclear terrorist attack (except on TV's 24), which makes one wonder if the material is as easy to buy or steal as Countdown to Zero implies.

The film takes us on a short trip down Memory Lane, reminding us of various Cold War milestones, although surprisingly little time is spent on Hiroshima, Nagasaki (which isn't even mentioned), and the Cuban Missile Crisis. There's file footage of Robert Oppenheimer speaking candidly about how entering the Nuclear Age changed the world. (This includes his quote, "I am become death, destroyer of worlds.") Arguably the most fascinating aspect of Countdown to Zero occurs when Walker examines some of the various near-misses in history when attacks were nearly launched, including one close call in January 1995, when Boris Yeltsin took a chance and saved civilization. (This is commonly referred to as "The Norwegian Rocket Incident.")

After spending about 90% of its running time warning viewers how unsafe the current world climate is, Countdown to Zero concludes with an upbeat message about what can be done to make Earth a safe place (at least in terms of reducing the likelihood of a nuclear disaster). The path to greater security leads through arms reduction and the inventorying and securing of potential fuel. A note of hope is sounded that recent talks between Barak Obama and his Russian counterpart, Dmitry Medvedev, could result in the first significant nuclear stockpile reductions since the late Cold War.

With Countdown to Zero, producer Lawrence Bender is attempting to replicate the success of An Inconvenient Truth, although this movie is less slickly produced and lacks as compelling a narrative. Little of the content is new; only those who are blissfully unaware of current events will find more than a few surprising nuggets within the production's trove. One source of disappointment is that, despite acquiring the participation of a number of high-profile interview subjects, including Jimmy Carter, Mikhail Gorbachev, Tony Blair, and F.W. de Klerk, there's little depth or substance to the comments they provide. Information offered by other, lesser known experts, is similarly superficial. In attempting to provide something capable of capturing the attention of an easily distracted demographic, the producers have dumbed down the material.

Countdown to Zero is worthwhile to an extent, if that extent is largely to remind the viewer of certain facts that are easily shunted to the back of one's consciousness. Still, for what it offers, I'd have a hard time recommending that anyone spend $10 for a ticket to see the movie, especially since it will become available for free on TV in the near future. The best medium in which to view Countdown to Zero is on The History Channel, not in a theater.

Countdown to Zero (United States, 2010)

Run Time: 1:30
U.S. Release Date: 2010-07-30
MPAA Rating: "PG"
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1