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

Written by John Bleasdale.

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As I noted in the short review, the campaign-driven documentary has become a popular way of fostering support behind an issue. While Michael Moore’s documentaries have become ever grander in scope, setting off from the relatively small town woes of Flint in Roger and Me (1989) to the macro-economics of Capitalism: A Love Story (2009), the campaign documentary tends to focus on one issue. This issue might itself be enormous - the big daddy of this subgenre is undoubtedly Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth (2006) which dealt with nothing less than the saving of the planet - but there is also room for something more specific.

The exploitation of dolphins came down to one specific location, Taiji, Japan, in The Cove (2009). The convention of ‘one man’s mission’ was perhaps exemplified by this film’s protagonist, Ric O’Barry, who at times was movingly convincing, at times mad, and at times both - as when he straps screens playing footage of the slaughter of the dolphins to himself and walks into a meeting of the International Whaling Commission. A shot at the end of the film sees him similarly attired on a Japanese high street at night, people coming and going around him and, finally, a small crowd gathering. The similarity of the slightly mad figure of Ric to the kind of harmless loon who would parade around with an ‘End is Nigh!’ sandwich board is perhaps discomforting, but having been on the journey alongside him we understand his enthusiasm. Along with the magnetic attraction of Ric and his story-telling prowess, The Cove made the making of the documentary into part of the subject matter. This is usually what documentaries of this kind search for: a way not only of making their arguments persuasive, but also cinematically interesting. The A-Team antics of the film-makers provided the film with tension and drive as well a readymade and unambiguous set of goodies and baddies. For other documentaries, there might not be such an obviously filmic narrative arc.

Last year’s Inside Job (2010) benefited from being such a timely denunciation and manages to make complicated financial shenanigans understandable - itself no small feat. It combined expert analysis, restrained (up to a point) interrogation, the odd sweeping panorama, as well as the star power of a Matt Damon narration. Waiting For Superman (2010) is perhaps of less interest to non-American audience since its target (the American education system) is unlikely to effect them; the same may even go for Moore’s Sicko (2007), which similarly spoke very clearly to a domestic arena.

Countdown to Zero comes with the star power narration (Gary Oldman this time), as well as the high-powered producer Laurence Bender (who cut his teeth with Quentin Tarantino), ensuring that the film gets not only made but also shown. It has urgency in buckets, but - whereas we were all familiar with the global warming crisis prior to An Inconvenient Truth - the dangers posed by nuclear weapons have of late somehow receded from popular discourse; rather stupidly, as it happens.

In the 1980s the danger seemed so palpable that you couldn’t just taste it, you could often chew it. Nuclear weapons were often present in our cultural imaginations. Frankie Goes to Hollywood held the UK number one spot for nine weeks with their Cold War-focused 'Two Tribes'; popular television shows such as the US miniseries The Day After (1983) and the vastly superior BBC drama Threads (1984) gave us the collective willies, with their milk bottles melting on door steps, normal people being killed and terrorised, and a Woolworths exploding in Sheffield city centre. There were fewer mushroom clouds on our cinema screens. Perhaps the possibility of nuclear war had been so effectively and definitively portrayed in Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove in 1964 that few felt the need to bother trying again. An exception to this was the fantastic and under-rated adaptation of Raymond Brigg’s children book When the Wind Blows (1986). Featuring the voices of John Mills and Peggy Ashcroft, this animated film showed an old married couple dutifully preparing for Nuclear Armageddon with a ‘right-o’ spirit clearly carried over from the Blitz. Following the instructions of a government information leaflet (which itself was much satirised at the time of its publication), the couple manage to survive the initial blast only to find that all their dutiful, feeble preparations are massively inadequate to surviving the lingering effects of the bomb, its radiation, and the complete breakdown of society. In fact, this post-apocalyptic landscape became something of a cliché, featuring in the latter two Mad Max films as well as innumerable rock videos and fashion shoots.

And then nothing. The end of the world might come about via the robots taking over (see: the Terminator and Matrix franchises), or huge meteors colliding with the Earth (Armageddon [1998] and Deep Impact [1998]), or by deadly virus outbreaks (I am Legend [2007] and 28 Days Later), but the nuclear threat has seemingly become so insignificant that by 2008 Indiana Jones was able to survive a nuclear warhead’s blast by hiding in a fridge. One more time: by hiding in a fridge.

Cue Countdown to Zero. This is a wake up call, if ever there was one - a finger pointing to the forgotten sword of Damocles hanging above all our heads, and held by the weakest of threads.

And yet today’s nuclear Armageddon is apparently not our fathers’ nuclear Armageddon. It's true that we are given Kennedy’s famous speech, and we have old footage of mushroom clouds in all their horrifying beauty (by the way:, did anyone notice how appealing Spielberg made that mushroom cloud look once Indy got out of the fridge?). We also have maps of major cities with the mileage from the epicentre drawn on. The main thrust, however, is that if we are to be destroyed by nuclear weapons now it won’t be via the old (and, from this new context, oddly comforting) tit-for-tat of Mutually Assured Destruction, played out by two ideologically-driven superpowers. Rather, this film suggests it may be because of someone from a former Soviet satellite flogging piles of weapon-grade plutonium to feed his Lamborghini habit. Or a terrorist organisation who, once they have the fissile material, could build a bomb cheaply and quickly. Or it will be an accident - and here there are a number of genuinely disturbing revelations of bombs sinking to the bottom of the sea, never to be found again. Or it may equally come from false alarms: the tales told from inside the rooms in which the button will be pushed are enough to make you wish you didn’t know.

Of course, for this to be a campaigning documentary, there has to be hope; there has to be the possibility of change. For this, the film provides one of the more unlikely things to have graced our screens recently: F. W. de Clerk making sound sense. South Africa set the precedent of being the first ex-nuclear power, renouncing its weapons programme and decommissioning its missiles. Despite Iranian ambitions to become a nuclear power, there are many other countries fully capable of being nuclear powers, and yet who choose not to be. And Russia and the US are finally again talking about reductions in their nuclear arsenal. The vox-box interviewees declaring that there should be no nuclear weapons would be more heartening if it hadn’t been for the earlier shots of a jubilant Pakistan celebrating its acquisition of atomic bombs. The film is laudable in bringing into sharp focus a problem that poses much more of an existential threat than either terrorism or the financial markets. Effective documentaries on subjects such as this are important for their potential to shake us from our complacency; after all, the alternative is to hide in the fridge.

This Alternate Take was published on June 18, 2011.