At a Russian naval base in the 1990s, potatoes were more tightly guarded than highly enriched uranium. This is one of the many unnerving facts in director Lucy Walker’s “Countdown to Zero,” a documentary that seeks to raise awareness of an issue that we stopped talking about after the Cold War, but that never went away: nuclear proliferation.
The film, produced by Oscar-winner Lawrence Bender, whose long list of notable films includes “An Inconvenient Truth” and “Inglourious Basterds,” gives us an inside look at how easy it is for terrorists to make and transport highly enriched uranium and plutonium and nuclear weapons. We are told some facts most of us already know: how quickly these weapons can travel across the world when launched, how widespread their deadly effects could be, and that the president would have to decide within mere minutes how to react before evacuating to safety. But what makes the film fresh and fascinating are the facts that most people don’t know, including how close we have come to nuclear disasters in recent years. It emphasizes how urgent of an issue this really is, even though our kids are no longer hiding under their desks at school in anticipation of “the bomb.”
Brilliantly framed by JFK’s famous 1961 address before the General Assembly of the UN, the film explores the three ways we could have a nuclear disaster: by “accident or miscalculation or by madness.” The film’s most startling facts are about the close calls we’ve had that had nothing to do with terrorists. In 1961, for example, a B-52 broke apart over North Carolina, and two nuclear bombs fell. One of the bombs nearly exploded, but didn’t thanks to one safety switch–the other five malfunctioned. Also chilling is what happened in 1995. A rocket launched by the US to study the Northern Lights was mistaken by Russian officials to be four nuclear warheads. Thankfully, then-President Boris Yeltsin’s instincts told him that Russia was not under attack, and a possible World War III was averted.
The film features interviews with big names, including former spy for the CIA Valerie Plame Wilson, former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair, former US President Jimmy Carter, and former USSR General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev. The film’s many high-profile sources come to the same conclusion: that we must eradicate nuclear weapons. But is that even possible? The film does a powerful job of convincing us why this should be, but does not answer how. Wouldn’t all countries secretly hoard nuclear weapons just in case another country used one against them? But perhaps the questions the film raises and does not answer are part of its purpose: to spark a discussion. “An Inconvenient Truth” was more than a wake-up call, as there are ways we can actually do something about global warming: for example, by driving cars that get better gas mileage or by turning off lights that aren’t in use. But unfortunately, there isn’t much we can do about the issues raised in “Countdown to Zero,” so the movie acts as a hair-raising eye opener, but leaves us helpless and shivering in our boots.
No matter your political persuasion, this film unites us all in recognizing the urgent need to rid the world of its nuclear weapons. Now we just have to figure out how, and in the meantime hope that the “countdown” is to zero nuclear weapons in the world and not to the moment a nuclear device explodes.