Countdown to Zero
Doomsday scenarios and a lot of what-ifs
Tired of action heroes saving the world, robbing you of the atomic annihilation sequence you’d been secretly dying to see? “Countdown to Zero,’’ an earnest, alarmist new docu-plea for nuclear disarmament, concludes with an orgy of such destruction. Mushroom clouds. Infernal white light. Obliterating energy blasts. It’s all here, and mostly beyond the pale.
It’s not as if the movie, which Lucy Walker directed, has failed to make its point, though it possibly has. It gathers a handful of very knowledgeable nuclear scientists, national security experts, and world leaders — the former CIA agent Valerie Plame Wilson, the late Robert McNamara, Tony Blair, Jimmy Carter, Mikhail Gorbachev, Zbigniew Brzezinski; many of whom sound, oddly, as if they’re reading — to posit doomsday scenarios predicated on a lot of what ifs.
What if Russia fires its current stockpile of missiles at the US? What if a misunderstood rocket launch in 1995 had been more than a false nuclear alarm? What if Al Qaeda gets its hands on a bomb? After enough extremely credible people articulate and extrapolate and surmise, it’s easy to feel torn. On the one hand, you’re anxious: Isn’t “if’’ simply a matter of “when’’? On the other hand, the movie wants to exploit that anxiety. An excerpt from President Kennedy’s 1961 United Nations speech is frozen on screen and frequently revisited. The nuclear era hangs over us like the sword of Damocles, he warned. So does this movie’s sense of speculative provocation.
It urges caution, then throws it to the wind. Montages of destruction erupt during panicked, forensic accounts of what a detonated bomb would do. “Everyone would die,’’ we’re told. Then “hundreds of millions would die of fallout.’’ “Most of the doctors will be dead.’’ “There wouldn’t be any power.’’ “People would be demanding Draconian measures to ensure that another city didn’t go up.’’ And Charlton Heston and Will Smith will battle over who, really, is legend.
World destruction is no laughing matter, and yet this movie’s treatment of it is sometimes amusingly desperate. Some comedies have used that final blitz of destruction to suggest orgasms. This movie deploys its own kind of pornography.
It goes on to insist that average citizens can help rid the planet of nuclear weapons (visit a website, pretty much). However, most of us will be too busy crouching in our fallout shelters to type the URL.
But there’s another problem. Basking, however backhandedly, in the afterglow of man-made disaster is one thing. Instructively illustrating how to create such a catastrophe is another. The experts in “Countdown to Zero’’ lay out a step-by-step explanation for how to create a bomb. It’s not rocket science, we’re more or less told. My mother could make one. With all due respect to her, it doesn’t look that easy. But it is made to seem like a rather Tolkien-esque quest for materials.
Fretting over the movie’s tutorial potential to set off evil light bulbs does seem foolish. The bad guys either already have a nuclear weapon or know what they need to buy or make one. This movie won’t be news to them. And yet: What if?