Of all the doomsday scenarios keeping chronic worriers awake at night, nuclear annihilation seems the quaintest: a relic of a heated ideological conflict that has long since cooled. But it’s because the United States and Russia are no longer gearing up for World War III that the danger of a nuclear holocaust looms larger than ever. Stockpiles aren’t as secure as they used to be, and more countries have the technology to make nuclear weapons now than did in the deepest chill of the Cold War. Worse, the sort of people seeking to obtain nuclear devices today aren’t looking to safeguard the citizens of their nation; they’re looking to wreak havoc, even if they obliterate themselves in the process.
Lucy Walker’s documentary Countdown To Zero takes its cues from John F. Kennedy’s speech about how the threat of apocalypse could be exacerbated “by accident, or miscalculation, or by madness.” Walker examines each possibility in turn, with some impressive talking heads to back her up: Mikhail Gorbachev, Jimmy Carter, Tony Blair, Valerie Plame, and more. Countdown To Zero explains how highly enriched uranium is fairly easy to smuggle, no matter how diligent the customs agent, and how governments with nuclear weapons tend to keep them in a state of readiness that renders them less safe. The documentary also recounts anecdotes about bombs that have been loaded onto military planes by mistake, and even dropped by mistake. And though Walker ends on a hopeful note—noting that nuclear arsenals have been more than halved over the past two decades—Countdown To Zero is unequivocal in arguing that unless all nuclear weapons are destroyed, some sort of disaster in inevitable.
The problem with being so unequivocal is that Countdown To Zero makes most of its points in about 20 minutes. The movie is slickly shot and assembled, with all the requisite animations, recreations, file footage, and ominous pulsing music that make agit-prop docs go these days. But Walker’s preponderance of facts and figures don’t make her case as well as a few well-placed anecdotes, like the ones about how flocks of geese, a rising moon, and a malfunctioning computer chip all almost touched off nuclear strikes in the past. Walker has something important to say with Countdown To Zero, but if this movie were standing on a doorstep with a petition, most reasonable people would sign it quickly and send it on its way, rather than inviting it in to chat.