Radcliff's Reviews: Countdown to Zero

Fresh from his Silverdocs reporting, Docs In Progress resident critic, Matthew Radcliff is back with a new reflection on a documentary you can seeon the big or small screen.  This time it's Countdown to Zero, which just opened in Washington (as well as New York and Los Angeles) this past week at Landmark's E Street Theatre.



Non-fiction films, like any work of art, reflect the hopes and fears of the era in which they are created. Thus, Lucy Walker's recent documentary, Countdown to Zero makes frequent use of what may be the dominant image of the past decade: security camera footage. After a short prologue of atomic bomb test footage (the defining image of the twentieth century), we leave the Cold War behind and situate ourselves in the present-day "War on Terror" epoch. Security-camera footage showing explosions in Madrid set the tone, followed by on-the-scene video of the aftermath of terrorist attacks in Bali, London, Riyadh, Kenya, Mumbai, Buenos Aires, Oklahoma City, and New York City. The point of the film, and it is successful, is to terrify audiences and galvanize action to eliminate nuclear weapons. It starts off with a bang and ends with a literal "call to action:" a number to text message for more information.

Nuclear weapons and nuclear material - the highly enriched uranium or plutonium necessary to have an explosive chain reaction - cannot be kept 100% secure. Given how small an amount it takes to level a city (roughly the size of a tennis ball, we are told), and how much exists in the world, it is a wonder there has not been a catastrophe already. Therefore, Countdown argues, it is imperative that we eliminate all potential sources of fissile material before we suffer another nuclear explosion. The danger is unlikely to come from a lone operative, as making a nuclear bomb requires a substantial amount of engineering, but may come from "rogue states," such as North Korea and Iran, or large terrorist networks, either foreign or domestic. However, an accident or misunderstanding, both of which have occurred shockingly often since the bomb was born, may also result in a nuclear explosion. The final argument of the film is that even if only the "good guys" have nuclear weapons, they are still subject to human error and therefore dangerous and should be eliminated. Of all the countries in the world that have had nuclear weapons, only South Africa has taken the initiative to dismantle their bombs. The atomic test footage at the beginning of the film plays in reverse, as if in attempt to stuff the nuclear genie back into the bottle. The end of the film, after seeing the same footage playing forward, presents us with total nuclear disarmament as the only way to put back the genie. A series of simple steps are laid out at the end of the film to accomplish this goal.

But like the film, I keep returning to the security camera footage (or at least what looks like security camera footage). Running throughout the movie, it is a sobering illustration of our modern sensibilities of ever-present watchfulness. The "war on terror" is not on the top of our minds, perhaps, but every day on the DC Metro we are reminded: "if you see something, say something." Public transit, large crowds, iconic locations - these are where we have been taught to be watchful, to be wary, to be afraid. Perhaps the use of security camera footage in so many TV crime dramas has conditioned me to expect to see the incident happen on tape, but I kept waiting for some action throughout the security camera footage in Countdown to Zero. With the exception of one explosion early in the film, nothing suspicious happens in the footage we see. The streets and subways of New York, the bleachers at Yankee Stadium, and Washington Square Park are all featured prominently, with a watchful police officer standing guard. There is a creeping sense that a catastrophe is imminent; which it certainly is, if you listen to the numerous experts in the film.

Countdown to Zero very effectively imbues footage of large crowds and iconic public spaces (e.g., Times Square, the Washington Monument, the Coliseum) with a tangible sense of dread. Many of the shots feature police officers, their jackets emblazoned with "Counterterrorism Unit" or "Emergency Service Unit." The satellite maps of numerous cities all pan to structures readily identifiable from an outline, locations that are often filled with people and are well within the blast zone of an expected attack. Yet when it comes to nuclear explosions, the film makes clear, it does not have to go off in a crowded city square to cause mass destruction. One small nuclear bomb, detonated in an empty square, would destroy a radius of five miles in mere seconds. This unimaginable tragedy is described in a breathtaking sequence in the film, layered with the sounds and images of New Year's Eve in Times Square and scored with a haunting version of Somewhere Over the Rainbow. As the crowd chants the countdown, we see missiles launch. A map shows the spread of the blast as the experts describe its effects. First, the shock wave of the explosion itself would pass, bringing with it a rain of debris flying hundreds of miles per hour. Second, the heat of the explosion would ignite every flammable object as it swept past. The fires would effectively consume all of the oxygen within the five-mile radius. If, somehow, you managed to survive all of that, then you need to worry about the radiation. In this sense, our fear of crowds and public transit are misguided. Really, the film seems to argue, there is no time or place in which we are safe, as long as nuclear weapons exist.

The history of nuclear weapons and nuclear material is full of accidents and mistakes. Our security, so far, has been a result of sheer, dumb luck, as much as vigilant police work. There have been a number of thefts of nuclear material from the stockpiles of the former Soviet republics. All those we have caught were apprehended by accident. One story recounted early in the film concerns a low-level worker at a processing facility in Kazakhstan who managed to steal 1.5 kg of highly enriched uranium, and was only caught because he was travelling with a ring of car-battery thieves who were being watched. Frighteningly easy to smuggle around, using basic methods (several experts in the film liken it to drug smuggling), ocean-going cargo ships seem to be the most logical means of transportation. One scene reinforces the dangers to our borders by showing a fleet of giant cargo ships, all sailing together as an armada of mass destruction. Another beautiful and yet chilling sequence shows time-lapse footage of a port unloading a large cargo ship. With little evidence of human intervention, the giant machines inexorably move the cargo containers from the ship to the dock, and from the dock to waiting tractor-trailers. Meanwhile, the experts tell us how difficult it is to detect the highly enriched uranium that might be hidden inside.

We don't need to look outside our borders for nuclear trouble, unfortunately. Our own military has had a string of bad luck holding on to nuclear bombs. There is no technology in the world with a 0% chance of failure, and only extreme good luck has kept us safe from an accidental nuclear explosion. On routine flights, nuclear missiles have come loose and fallen from their plane, with only the last of several layers of fail-safe switches not failing. That was over North Carolina. Several of our bombs did fall on Spain in 1966 after a collision during mid-air refueling. While the event luckily did not cause a nuclear explosion, the bombs did scatter radioactive material over 2-square kilometers. A launch of a US rocket from Norway, for atmospheric research, was interpreted by the Russian military to be the beginning of a nuclear attack, despite having been notified beforehand. Boris Yeltsin, the Russian president, was given the "nuclear football" and urged to launch a counterattack. "Fortunately," we are told, "Yeltsin wasn't drunk, and he didn't believe what the military was telling him."

The expert talking heads in the film are believable and knowledgeable. They include physicists, journalists, and national security experts, including Valerie Plame Wilson, the famed CIA operative, former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, former National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski, and former Secretary of State James Baker. We are also treated to a number of former decision makers who all advocate for totally eliminating nuclear weapons: former South African President F. W. de Klerk, former Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, former President Jimmy Carter, and former Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev. To hear these individuals, who have each had control of nuclear weapons, renounce them and advocate for their elimination is new. These are not "sour grapes," but critiques from the very people on whose shoulders the hard decisions have lain. Decisions that demand to be made in about thirty seconds, I might add. One cannot dismiss lightly the lessons learned from experience. It is only a matter of time before our luck, which has sustained us so far, runs out.

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