The dual-review film criticism site: first a spoiler-free review, then an in-depth Alternate Take.
Countdown to Zero

Reviewed by John Bleasdale.

Director Lucy Walker
Length 89 Mins
Certificate PG / PG
Rating *******---
Filmmaking: 4  Personal enjoyment: 3

Photo from the article Trailer.

There has of late been a quiet boom in feature length documentaries. Only this month we have a cracker of a sporting bio-pic, Senna, which does for Formula One what Leon Gast did for boxing. And alongside that we now have a fine example of the crusading documentary sub-genre with Countdown to Zero.

Although every popular documentarian who deals with a topic of political concern now owes something of a debt to Michael Moore, his entertainingly zippy polemics have not necessarily provided a stylistic template for anyone except perhaps Morgan Spurlock. The modern crusading documentary is liable to be more sober; it is often backed by a powerful producer or celebrity (this film is narrated by Gary Oldman); its arguments are organised in a clear methodical way, and a solution proffered in the final ten minutes. This will often involve going to a website and getting involved in some way, usually by clicking on a link to some organisation with the word “involved” in the title. There is always an underlying sense of urgency.

Countdown to Zero is perhaps more urgent than most. It takes as its template a speech given by John F. Kennedy to the UN on nuclear proliferation, in which he stated that the thread holding the nuclear Sword of Damocles could be cut by accident, miscalculation or madness. The film uses these three possibilities to structure much of the rest of the film. The talking heads consist of a mixture of experts, the odd criminal, and political heavyweights such as Tony Blair, Gorbachev and Jimmy Carter. Less successful are the vox-pop street interviews - which should be banned, along with nuclear weapons. You cannot get a cross section of the international public by talking to ten people in front of ten national landmarks. If I want to know what Britain is thinking I don’t head off to Big Ben to collar a couple of old fogies. How many nuclear weapons are there in the world? We receive various answers ranging from far too few to far too many, and some who were nearer the mark. I’m not sure what I’m learning here: some people are smart? Some better informed? One girl asks the interviewer: “do you know?”

The topic itself is so compelling that we don’t need to be reminded of our level of ignorance (as variable as that may be). The insiders are much more interesting. They tell us how to build a bomb (fissile materials from Russia where, reportedly, “potatoes are guarded better”), how to smuggle it into America (kitty litter, apparently), and inform us of some scary and hitherto little-publicised moments in our more recent history. There are so many reasons for being scared here. There’s the terrorist plot, as well as the proliferation of weapons to rogue countries such as Iran and North Korea, or countries in the midst of territorial disputes such as Pakistan and Israel. There’s the possibility for accidents, with a surprising number of nuclear weapons unaccounted for as they sink into the sea with their submarines or crash with their aeroplanes. And then there are the false alarms which saw Boris Yeltsin being given the button to push because a scientific satellite was mistaken for a first strike launch. Luckily, he wasn’t drunk, comments one expert.

As an argument, Countdown to Zero doesn’t need to be especially persuasive: nuclear weapons are not particularly popular. What the film does, and does well, is serve as a wake-up call to the often sidelined danger that weapons of this kind pose. It might well be a low probability, but, given enough time, low-probability events inevitably happen.

This review was published on June 13, 2011.

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