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Doom and boom: Countdown to Zero



*Countdown to Zero (PG)

Kimball's Peak Three

Panic! That's one apt and perhaps welcome reaction to Countdown to Zero, Lucy Walker's documentary about the danger of nuclear weapons. More likely, though, the filmmakers (including the producers of Food, Inc. and An Inconvenient Truth) are aiming to elicit deep concern rather than hide-under-your-desk alarm.

The evidence presented culminates in a campaign in which we learn the title is not only a reference to a doomsday clock, but also a call to action.

What do we want? No more nukes. When do we want it? Yesterday. Here's our website.

Though it's not exactly healthy to live in a hypervigilant state of what-if, Walker's film is tight and persuasive enough to leave even the most carpe diem of viewers a wee bit rattled. Impeccably fleshed-out from a JFK speech in which he refers to nuclear arms as a sword of Damocles that could drop at any time, by accident, miscalculation or "madness," the film begins with the third of the three. It speaks of terrorism and the ease with which those bent on destroying mankind can obtain the materials necessary to make crude bombs, which, while having nowhere near the power of government weapons, could still level a city.

Anyone disbelieving that terrorists could get away with such action in our post-9/11 world won't be reassured by the numerous experts interviewed here — including nuclear physicists, Valerie Plame and other Pentagon employees — who cite ports as being especially vulnerable to imported uranium or plutonium, easily camouflaged by lead. Security detectors would have to be set to such high radiation sensitivity that everyday items would set them off.

"You wanna smuggle a bomb into the United States?" one commentator says. "Ship it in a box with kitty litter."

Even more disturbing is the breakdown of how readily one of the approximately 23,000 nuclear weapons left in the world could be fired, as well as a day in 1995 when that was minutes from happening. A rising moon, a flock of geese, a malfunctioning computer chip and even a training tape have sent those with the ability to kick-start launch procedures into a tizzy.

When the closest of close calls — the mistaken identification of a U.S. missile sent to study the Northern Lights that had Russian intelligence convinced their country was under attack — is described by an interview subject with: "Fortunately, [Boris] Yeltsin wasn't drunk," you may start taking your bucket list a bit more seriously.

The film also covers the history of the bomb, but Walker largely keeps the tech talk and graphics plain. The only oh-please sequence pops up near the end of the film: footage of Times Square revelers on New Year's Eve, faintly scored to Israel Kamakawiwo'ole's ukulele cover of "Over the Rainbow" and interspersed with shots of missiles and maps of major cities with danger-zone radii marked. It's a shamelessly heart-yanking scene, but the treacle is not likely to stay with you. Not after nearly 90 minutes of analysts insisting with simultaneous urgency and what-are-you-gonna-do? shrugs that we're this close to being obliterated.

"It's definitely not rocket science," one arms expert says.

"Rocket science is hard."

Related Film

Countdown to Zero

Official Site:

Director: Lucy Walker

Writer: Lucy Walker

Producer: Lawrence Bender

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