Magnolia Pictures // 2010 // 89 Minutes // Rated PG
Reviewed by Judge Gordon Sullivan // December 4th, 2010
In 1870, novelist Wilkie Collins wrote "I begin to believe in only one civilising influence -- the discovery one of these days of a destructive agent so terrible that War shall mean annihilation and men's fears will force them to keep the peace." It took another seventy-five years for man to find that weapon in the nuclear bomb detonated at the Trinity nuclear test site in New Mexico on July 16, 1945. Since then, the nations of the world have manufactured enough nuclear arms to destroy the world dozens, if not hundreds, of times over. Luckily, since the U.S. bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, no nuclear weapons have been employed in military conflicts. Because of this, and the ending of the Cold War, more and more of the world's citizens are pushing for the complete nuclear disarmament of all nations. Countdown to Zero provides solid ammunition in the war against nuclear weapons, demonstrating just how close the whole world is to destruction as long as there are nuclear arms out there.
Using a combination of archival footage and interviews with prominent experts (including Valerie Plame Wilson and Robert McNamara), Countdown to Zero gives an overview of nuclear weapons, from Alamogordo on down. The film makes a convincing case that the presence of nuclear arms on the world stage has, whether through accident or hubris, almost lead to the total destruction of the human race on more than one occasion. Combine those situations with the possibility of terrorist use of nuclear weapons, and it's hard to argue with the idea that nuclear weapons are more trouble than they're worth.
I'm generally sympathetic to the goals of Countdown to Zero: the world would be a better place without nuclear weapons. However, to appreciate the film's point, you've got to swallow a couple of illogical morsels before getting to the film's main argument:
* You Can't Have it Both Ways. The film tries to make the point that every terrorist worth the name wants a nuclear weapon. All the time they're out there buying or stealing nuclear material, bribing scientists, or looking to acquire a working device. Furthermore, the film claims that if they had one, they'd use it, especially Al Qaeda, who want four million dead Americans. That's great, except we haven't had a single nuclear incident involving a terrorist, which the film makes pretty obvious. The zealous reader might now be thinking "Well, our military and intelligence communities are so darn good that they're stopping these guys before they get the stuff." I thought that, too, until several interviewees tell us that almost all seizures of black market radioactive materials have been accidental or plain dumb luck. The film can't say out of one side that if terrorists get a weapon they'll use it while out of the other saying that nuclear material is so easy to acquire that just about anyone could get it. This is a pretty big logical hole that the film loses credibility for not plugging.
* The Cat's Out of the Bag. Unless some crazy goes rogue, the two greatest nuclear threats on the day-to-day level are accidents and terrorists. Because nuclear weapons rely on systems that can fail, both in determining the need to fire as well as the actual firing mechanism, it might only take one missile launch to cascade into the annihilation of the human race. The film makes a credible case that nuclear disarmament could help solve that problem. With no nukes on standby, accidental launch becomes a thing of the past. However, the film doesn't present any serious defenses against terrorist use of nuclear weapons. Because the technology to build a nuclear device is startlingly simple and nuclear material a naturally occurring element, if terrorists really want some it can be acquired (as the film points out). Unless we abandon any use of radioactive materials (which would preclude nuclear power plants, among other things), then Highly Enriched Uranium, the major ingredient in nuclear arms, is going to be readily available. Because there's no credible way to counter this threat, the film feels a bit like it's scaremongering on this point.
If you can overlook these two omissions, which may or may not be a big deal overall, then the rest of this documentary gets it right. The film does an effective job presenting a history of nuclear weapons, from Trinity to the Cuban Missile Crisis, and beyond to the post-Soviet era. All the right people are either interviewed or featured in archival footage. Generally, the film's arguments hold up: nuclear weapons make little sense in a post-Cold War context, their presence perverts diplomatic relations, and it's entirely too easy to have one go off when it really shouldn't. I can see this film effectively slotting into a high school or college history course, and it's a solid documentary for the casual historian as well.
On DVD, Countdown to Zero looks pretty good. The material of recent vintage is bright and clear, and most of the archival footage looks about is good as we can hope. The 5.1 surround track is a bit of a waste for a film that's mostly talking heads, but it does a fine job balancing the audio. Extras include a number of deleted scenes, even more interviews and archival footage, as well as a PSA for a nuclear disarmament group and a letter from the filmmakers.
Although made by the same people who brought us An Inconvenient Truth, Countdown to Zero isn't likely to tickle the cultural fancy until someone goes crazy with a nuclear weapon. Until then, fans of solid documentaries should seek Countdown out, even if only for rental.
Despite skipping a few numbers along the way, Countdown to Zero is not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Magnolia Pictures
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 89 Minutes
Release Year: 2010
MPAA Rating: Rated PG
* Deleted Scenes
* Bonus Footage