Countdown to Zero is an impassioned, exhaustively researched reminder of the lingering dangers of nuclear weapons. Using a quote from a speech President Kennedy delivered in 1961 before the United Nations to provide the film’s framework for why (accident, miscalculation or madness) how (build, buy, or steal) nuclear weapons could be obtained and used. Combining the efforts of producer Lawrence Bender (An Inconvenient Truth) and director Lucy Walker (whose previous films Blindsight, Waste Land and Devil’s Playground have garnered no fewer than six Audience awards on the film festival circuit) their motives and personal politics are clear. They go about exploring this thorny geopolitical issue with the aid of a lot of top shelf speakers (former Russian president Mikhail Gorbachev, former UK prime minister Tony Blair, current Pakistan president Pervez Musharraf, former Secretary of State James Baker and Valerie Plame to name a few) who provide clear insights and thoughtful introspection.
But the specter of being tagged “a talking head film” looms large in Countdown to Zero and the methods the filmmaker team employs to make the film ‘more human’ run the gamut from colorful (if not somewhat predictable) to so monumentally offensive and stupid that they strip away much of the film‘s credibility and craft. Demonstrations of animated detonation zones on city maps, archive footage of plane crashes edited together for comedic effect and well bankrolled news footage serve their purpose but are used as the repeated go-tos for jokes that didn’t feel all that funny to begin with.
The overly chatty “man on the street” interviews wherein people -- conspicuously reflecting every ethnicity, age, gender and geographic location -- enthusiastically cite the same opinions, ‘nuclear bombs are like.. totally bad!’ also start to grate pretty quickly. It’s understandable that a filmmaker would want to introduce some levity into the subject of global nuclear annihilation but it greatly undermines the evidence presented by scientists, former heads of states and trained spies to treat their expertise as though it needs to be backed up by a pep squad.
But the moment Countdown veers into reprehensible territory begins with its opening sequence of surveillance footage from no fewer than four subway station terrorist bombings. The message that these attacks could have been far more damaging had they been padded with nuclear material is a fairly obvious and unnecessary one to make. Nor is it appropriate to show what amounts to snuff footage for a film with such a pronounced political agenda. Countdown then continues the meme, sprinkling mock surveillance footage of a baseball game throughout the rest of the film. Matched for framing and timing to the subway footage, the viewer sits ready to flinch at an explosion we know will never come. It’s a galling manipulation that is both unethical documentary storytelling as well as profoundly shitty filmmaking.
There’s also a niggling feeling that one of the scientists appears to be coached into making his message into a better pullquote. When mentioning that the technology needed to make nuclear devices is well-established and readily available he quips, “this equipment is from the 1950s.. this is 2010!” Countdown to Zero premiered at the Sundance film festival in late January 2010, it seems very unlikely his interview was conducted in the year 2010. But priming its subjects for maximum trailer-osity is really the least of the film’s offenses.
All of this begs the question, what happened here? Walker’s previous works have all been genuine crowd-pleasers but never through a process of dumbing down their material or creating a false sense of suspense. Quite the opposite, in the past she’s gone into isolated and stigmatized communities, gained the trust of people either doing extremely difficult work (a woman trying to convince Tibetan monks that blind children aren’t cursed in Blindsight) or at particularly unflattering point in their lives (the Amish teens smoking meth during their “rumspringa” in Devil’s Playground), then burrowing into their stories so thoroughly it was impossible to not be moved by the experience of really spending time with and understanding these individuals.The film’s failures don’t derive from a lack of caring or craft. Remnants of a smarter film can be seen in the construction and editing of a lot of complicated material into a thoughtful, accessible film. In one scene, the film imagines what actually happens after a nuclear explosion. Walker (providing the film’s voice-over) explains the immediate medical and structural damage, then goes on to posit what the culture and political ramifications would be in the weeks, months and years for people outside the blast radius. It’s an exceptionally thoughtful grace note to a film that is so callous towards actual suffering.
Countdown to Zero opens in New York in Los Angeles today. It opens in Portland at Cinema 21 July 30th.