The Final Countdown

From global annihilation to dirty bombs, our nuclear fears remain

KHAAAN! Damn you, A.Q. Khan. Seriously, if there's one thing we can take away from Lucy Walker's (The Devil's Playground) unnerving documentary, Countdown to Zero, it's that Pakistan's nuclear scientist and national folk hero has pretty much screwed us all. Setting up a one-stop shop for atomic bomb design, he helped both North Korea and Iran to develop their nuclear programs, and came disturbingly close to doing the same for Libya. Nine nations currently possess nuclear weapons, and more than 40 countries have the technical know-how to construct them.

Just when you thought global warning, jihadism and the impending zombie apocalypse had rendered atomic doomsday scenarios passé, along comes this cinematic editorial about how a nuclear attack is more than just a well-worn plot device for Jack Bauer. Walker takes us through the current and disheartening state of world affairs: Terrorists want the weapons, the technology is easy to build or acquire, highly enriched uranium is poorly guarded, and security at our ports is completely impotent. 

Back in 1961, President Kennedy warned that the world is in constant danger of nuclear annihilation by "accident or miscalculation or by madness." Countdown to Zero makes clear that we have narrowly averted the first two on several occasions and the third, with al-Qaeda and dictators like Kim Jong Il, is becoming an increasing probability. It's reported that border authorities have repeatedly discovered truckers trying to smuggle uranium out of Russia. One of the film's scientists explains how an atomic bomb can be made by two dozen people for a little less than $7 million. Security experts go on to describe how kitty litter can help nuclear terrorists evade detection.
As creepy as these facts are, it's the near-misses and mistakes that leave you feeling queasiest. Flocks of geese, a malfunctioning computer chip, and even the rising moon almost led to accidental Armageddon. Bombs have either fallen out of or been unintentionally dropped by military airplanes. In 1995, the U.S. fired a research rocket to study the Northern Lights only to be misinterpreted by the Russians as an attack. With only five minutes to decide, Russia's military demanded that Boris Yeltsin initiate retaliatory actions. "Fortunately, Yeltsin wasn't drunk," notes one of the doc's talking heads.

As with An Inconvenient Truth, producers Participant Media are hoping to scare audiences into addressing a topic most feel powerless about. The film's long line of out-of-office politicos (Mikhail Gorbachev, Jimmy Carter, Tony Blair, Valerie Plame), book authors and side players all preach the disarmament gospel, and the archival footage and stylish graphics make for compelling arguments. The cumulative impact is persuasive and unnerving. But the ominous music and serious narration by Gary Oldham can't compensate for Walker's disorganized and chaotically fact-filled approach. Unlike Al Gore's meticulously constructed lecture, there's simply too much to connect and digest in Walker's scattershot approach. Themes and ideas are repeated too often, stats and figures haphazardly compete with fascinating personal and historical anecdotes, and it doesn't seem to build toward anything but the most obvious conclusion. 

In further contrast to An Inconvenient Truth, Walker's doc offers little in the way of audience action. At least Gore could link personal and industrial behaviors and political legislation to the issues surrounding global climate change. He ignited a debate that's still raging today. Countdown to Zero not only fails to single out specific targets to confront (it's not like we can petition the Osama bin Ladens of the world), it never offers a clear path to disarmament. Instead Walker's final frames serve up that hoariest of clichés: the dot-org website.

Showing at the Landmark Main Art Theatre, 118 N. Main St., Royal Oak; 248-263-2111.

Jeff Meyers is a film critic for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].

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