"Countdown to Zero" opens with an image that terrifies us, though we can't necessarily say why. By the time this unsettling documentary is over, we know the reason and we are even more frightened.
That first image is of enormous roiling clouds of the blackest black smoke, smoke that feels particularly menacing even before we realize it is the product of a nuclear bomb. "Countdown to Zero" is both a comprehensive look at the many ways we are all in terrible danger from the world's 23,000 nuclear weapons and an understandably desperate plea to cut that total to zero.
FOR THE RECORD:
"Countdown to Zero": The review of "Countdown to Zero" in Friday's Calendar section said that the documentary was unrated. It is rated PG, for thematic material, images of destruction and incidental smoking. —
As directed by the gifted Lucy Walker, whose previous work includes "Devil's Playground" and " Blindsight," "Countdown to Zero" scares us good and proper, and not just because of its description of the way a nuclear blast would make things hotter than the surface of the sun, vaporizing everything in its path, even the upper crust of the Earth.
Walker adroitly mixes extensive newsreel footage, lively graphics and talking-head interviews with dozens of people, from scientists to think tank folks to world leaders such as Mikhail Gorbachev, Jimmy Carter, Tony Blair and Pervez Musharraf.
The most memorable words from a politician, however, come from a 1961 speech to the U.N. by President John F. Kennedy, words that are used as a recurring motif throughout the film.
"Every man, woman and child lives under a nuclear sword of Damocles," Kennedy said, "hanging by the slenderest of threads, capable of being cut at any moment by accident or miscalculation or by madness. The weapons of war must be abolished before they abolish us."
"Countdown to Zero" begins with a brief history of nuclear weaponry, starting with the discovery that atom splitting would release unprecedented amounts of energy. The often-seen news clip of a haunted J. Robert Oppenheimer (who headed the Manhattan Project) quoting Hindu scripture and saying, "Now I have become Death, the destroyer of worlds," retains its power to disturb.
After this prologue, "Countdown" devotes most of its time to detailing the major ways that nuclear weapons might come to be used. One is the danger of a bomb falling into the hands of a rogue state that might not feel any compunction about employing it.
The villain of this particular section is Pakistan's Abdul Qadeer Khan, who sold nuclear technology to nations with the means to pay, an individual still so radioactive that former Pakistani leader Musharraf would agree to be interviewed only if Khan's name did not come up.
Equally unsettling is a newsreel clip of Iranian leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who says to a Western journalist with unsettling logic, "If a nuclear bomb is a good thing, we should have it. If it is a bad thing, why do you have it?"
Another danger, and one not talked about much, is the possibility of human error setting off a bomb. "Countdown" recounts numerous nuclear near-misses, from a bomb that nearly detonated in 1961 after falling from a B-52 in North Carolina to the time a flock of geese was initially misconstrued as a missile attack. As physicist Frank von Hippel explains, the prognosis in this area is not good: "If the probability isn't zero, it will happen."
The most current of the dangers is the possibility that terrorists such as the Al Qaeda network will get hold of enough highly enriched uranium — as it turns out, chillingly simple to smuggle — to make a crude though inevitably catastrophic bomb.
Getting hold of that fissionable material in the first place does not appear to be as difficult as one would hope. There was a case of it being stolen from a Russian naval base in the early 1990s, which caused an official to comment, "Potatoes were guarded better." And one of Walker's interviewing coups is a chat with convicted nuclear smuggler Oleg Khintsagov, whose blasé attitude toward what might have happened had he not been caught is more than chilling.
Inspired in part by the success of "An Inconvenient Truth," the makers of "Countdown to Zero" are determined to mobilize public opinion to zero out the world's nuclear arsenal. We all should be rooting for their success, because failure would leave no one left to mourn our mistakes.