Director Lucy Walker’s subject of alarm is one that you might have considered less potent since the end of the Cold War: nuclear weapons. But, as Walker lays out in grim detail, we may be even closer to a nuclear catastrophe than we were 20 years ago. Terrorists are seeking unsecured enriched uranium; the technology for manufacturing the bombs themselves is ridiculously easy; and considering how many near-misses we’ve had interpreting data that could have led to weapons launches, it seems like only a matter of time before the Big One falls.
And, at times, it seems that harrowing message is all Countdown to Zero really has going for it. It’s not much of a work of journalism, mostly compiling anecdotes about near-misses that have been widely documented. There’s an interesting segment devoted to the commercial operation of Pakistani scientist A.Q. Khan that made him the nuclear black-market’s Walmart, but Walker doesn’t seem to know how to give a visual pop to the information she has. Instead, she simply cross-cuts between talking heads and too-literal graphic representations of whatever the heads are talking about.
Is there an attempt near the end to provide a glimmer of hope in the form of individual activism toward complete disarmament? Yes. But, as the rest of the film makes abundantly clear, the genie is out of the bottle; the technology is known, and destroying every existing weapon won’t eliminate the ability of some rogue nation to do something insane (particularly when this movie effectively provides a shopping list for the process). If you want to be freaked out while simultaneously feeling utterly helpless, here’s the movie experience for you.
COUNTDOWN TO ZERO