"The weapons of war must be abolished before they abolish us" – John F. Kennedy
Countdown to Zero is the 2010 documentary directed by Lucy Walker. The film serves as a case for nuclear disarmament, pointing out the rising threat of a nuclear weapon being used. The film features interviews with some of the biggest hitters of the nuclear industry and includes many well-known politicians as well as experts in the field. Some of the big-names include Jimmy Carter, Mikhail Gorbachev, Tony Blair, and Robert McNamara, to name a few.
The organization of the film is built around John F. Kennedy’s famous address to the United Nations. The titles for each section are superimposed from text from Kennedy’s actual speech; it’s an innovative way to introduce the viewer into each new section.
The film makes good use of archival footage, especially at the beginning of the film. The first few minutes employ an eerie voiceover from Gary Oldman set to old stock-footage of nuclear detonations. Clips of mushroom clouds billowing over test-sites and stills from the flattened cities of Nagasaki and Hiroshima pop up frequently throughout the film as a means to emphasis its political message, but become redundant as the movie progresses. About halfway through, the images that once shocked the viewer now become increasingly desensitizing. One major downfall of the film is its exploitation in scare tactics. It constantly asserts that we’re literally living on the brink of nuclear destruction while never once mentioning the fact that nuclear weapons have only been used once in the history of mankind. The standpoint of the film is entirely biased towards pacifism and presents no counter-arguments of any kind. It’s this kind of single-sidedness which diminishes the film experience greatly.
As well as famous people, the filmmakers also employ the typical man-on-the-street interviews. The interviews were conducted in a number of different countries. The questions asked are meant to gather people’s opinions and perspectives, but mostly just end up illustrating the general populace’s ignorance of the subject. If there is one thing that this film does well though, it’s being informative. The film outlines a broad history of nuclear weapons, all the way from the 1940’s to currently. The film also details all the aspects necessary to construct a nuclear device, and how one might be smuggled into the U.S. The film is so precise in its detail that it could probably serve as a how-to for guerilla bomb-making.
“Now, I have become death, the destroyer of worlds” – Robert Oppenheimer
This film is a powerful speculation piece, addressing age-old fears about the detonation of a nuclear device. But that’s all it really is: a speculation piece—a “what-if” of the worst case scenario. In the two instances in history where nuclear devices have been used, the results were catastrophic. And yet, in all the years since the bombings in Japan, not one nuclear device has been detonated. The fatal flaw of this film is its pretentiousness and exaggeration of the threat of nuclear terrorism. Sure, it’s a threat that is very real, but it isn’t the dire and urgent one that the film tries to make it out to be. If anything needs to be asked, it should be asked of the validity of the filmmakers’ arguments. If nuclear bombs are so easy to construct, why haven’t they been? Where are the droves of wannabe Unabombers and Tim McVeighs lighting up our major cities? Where are all the terrorists who want to kill us so bad? Where are all the leveled cities and the hundreds of millions of causalities? Where?