Since I was born in 1986, I just missed out on the awesomeness that was the Cold War with all those “kiss your ass goodbye” Duck and Cover ads that existentially traumatized my parents’ generation. Despite the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the threat of nuclear weapons is still alive–and Countdown to Zero is happy to make you piss your pants with terror.
From the producer of An Inconvenient Truth, Countdown to Zero reminds us of the constant threat of nuclear annihilation that still exists, and how it might be more dangerous now than ever, thanks to nuclear weapons and material floating around the former Soviet states. The film paints this bleak picture via the testimonies of Tony Blair, Valerie Plame Wilson, Robert McNamera, Mikhail Gorbachev, Jimmy Carter, and other U.S. intelligence experts. These are rolled together with the stock footage of deceased presidents, missile launches, and fancy graphics paired with bombastic music tracks from Lupe Fiasco and Pearl Jam. All in all, it’s a well constructed film at a formalistic level.
The film is thematically centered around a speech in which JFK argued that nuclear weapons would end the world via accident, miscalculation or a moment of madness. We first look at terrorism and the manners in which one could acquire a nuclear weapon (self-built, bought, or stolen). The film highlights the loose security surrounding highly enriched uranium, the most essential and difficult to find element for a nuclear weapon. There is then a discussion of Western enemies seeking nukes, and the possibility of accidentally nuking ourselves through mechanical error – just as the film tracks the blast radius of a nuclear weapon on maps of New York and Paris, the threat from the outside (terrorists, “rogue” nations) moves inward (our own screw-up).
During its worst moments, the film reeks of amorphous U.S. anxiety about countries like Iran seeking nuclear weapons. The closest the film comes to discussing the “Whys” behind countries and terrorists seeking nuclear weapons is suggesting North Korea’s take on the U.S. invasion of Iraq (they didn’t have nukes, so they got stomped; where’s our deterrent?) and mentioning Osama bin Laden’s intent to kill an American for every U.S. bullet that kills a Muslim in the Middle East. These important motivations are glossed over by the anxious commentary from CIA experts reinforcing U.S. hypocrisy – we can have nukes, but not everyone else can. Hell, half of the Cold War tensions stemmed from the U.S.’s inability to see the foreign policy decisions after World War II from the Soviet Union’s perspective: the U.S. was encircling the Soviets, militarily and culturally, after just beating the Nazis back. So when a bunch of poor former colonies of the West want a nuke in order to be on equal terms with the super powers, who can blame them? Especially when the U.S. is the only one to have used a nuclear weapon in combat.
The film’s conclusion, that we should eradicate nuclear weapons, is presented as viable. Since the Russians twice decided not to push the button when all their technology indicated they were under attack by the U.S., the reality is clear – why the hell ever use them? If someone’s going to use nukes, why retaliate and take another 5 million with them? It would be the ultimate Karmic dick move. However, so long as one country has a nuclear weapon, they will be able to use it as leverage in disputes: Don’t do what I say and I’ll drop a nuke. That’s why you have the policy of Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD). Though we should lower the number of nuclear weapons in the world to lower the chances of accident or theft, the film conveniently leaves out the historical context by which we arrived to world saturated in nuclear weapons.
The film is scary when it explains how easy it is to acquire highly enriched uranium, but alarmist without serious consideration when it comes to countries in the “Axis of Evil” who want nuclear weapons. Maybe there wasn’t space to include it, but if we’re going to talk about the threat of nuclear war, it’s vital to know the clear motivations behind possible attackers. Countdown to Zero is an engaging documentary, but lacking the quality analysis and dramatic oomph of The Fog of War.