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Monday, August 16, 2010

Film Review | Countdown to Zero

Numbers Game

by Thomas Delapa

Want to see something really scary?

Forget Independence Day, 2012 or any other Hollywood horror story. This summer, Countdown to Zero should land on your Top Ten list. The cast includes such international stars as Jimmy Carter, Mikhail Gorbachev and Tony Blair. The doomsday plot? Unless the world acts quickly, time will run out on our ability to defuse the looming nuclear threat.

In a season of dreamy cinematic escapism, director Lucy Walker’s incendiary documentary hits home with a vengeance. Back in the hot years of the Cold War, U.S. military strategists were called upon to “think the unthinkable.” Walker goes one further, both thinking—and envisioning—the apocalyptic nightmare of either accidental or intentional nuclear catastrophe.

Serving as both past and prologue is President Kennedy’s 1961 address to the U.N., in which he warns of the “nuclear sword of Damocles” hanging over humanity. That was when only a few superpowers had the Bomb. Now that the Cold War has thawed, nuclear proliferation and global terrorism have emerged as the itchiest potential fingers on the atomic trigger. Since the 1960s, Pakistan and North Korea have also joined the nuclear club, and both have been players in the illicit trade of nuclear technology, particularly to Iran.

The number-one shocking lesson to learn in Countdown might be that basic nuclear weaponry isn’t rocket science. A bomb roughly equivalent to the one that leveled Hiroshima only requires a grapefruit-sized quantity of fissionable uranium or plutonium. The creation of that enriched uranium—however time-consuming and expensive—can nevertheless be accomplished with 1950s centrifuge technology. According to Walker’s experts, the hardest part is fabricating a device for detonating or delivering the warhead. Alert viewers—if not Homeland Security—may well ask why these experts so readily broadcast such Nukes-for-Dummies tips on film. After all, armed evidently with only low-tech box-cutters, a handful of terrorists staged the most devastating attack on America since Pearl Harbor.

Today, not only is the nuclear genie out of the bottle, but no one can find the cork. In the former Soviet state of Georgia, one N-plant worker smuggled a small quantity of enriched uranium past the flimsy security. He planned to sell it on the black market so he could buy luxury American cars. Once smuggled, a ball of dense, weapons-grade uranium can easily be hidden within a small lead container. Entrance into a U.S. port might be smooth sailing, given the enormous tonnage of all shapes and sizes that pass daily through our many ports.

Unlike many advocacy documentaries, Walker works to defuses any charge of bias by including experts from a range of the political spectrum, including Republican die-hard James Baker and a grave Valerie Plame Wilson, the ex-CIA agent notoriously outed by the Bush/Cheney White House. For historical benchmarks, Walker summons up haunting black-and-white footage of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the father of the atomic bomb. While he famously expressed regrets over his paternity, Oppenheimer also brazenly admitted that “when you see something that is technically sweet, you go ahead and do it.”

While Walker launches Countdown as a cautionary documentary, it hits the target as a hot-button horror show. An interview with a former Minuteman-missile silo officer reveals just how close the Cold War world was to a Dr. Strangelove-style Armageddon. Though today’s arsenals have been reduced as a result of U.S.-Soviet treaties, there are still at least 23,000 nuclear warheads on the ready. One think-tanker soberly concludes, “There’s nothing that makes the launch of nuclear weapons impossible.”

In a blitz of chilling graphics, we see H-bomb blast scenarios laid over maps of the world’s great cities. Try thinking this unthinkable: at ground zero, temperatures would rise to 20 million degrees Fahrenheit.

From this unspeakable brink, Walker brings us back down to earth, adding a not-so-disarming coda on the strategies united nations can use to stop this countdown to madness. Judging by these experts, time isn’t on our side.

Originally published in Conducive Chronicle, 8/13/10

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