Countdown to Zero opens with members of the public from various countries being asked how worried they are about the threat of nuclear weapons. Most show little concern over the subject, with this probably being the first time that some of them have even given the matter any thought. Later, another group of people is asked how many nuclear weapons they think are in the world and which countries are currently in possession of them. Their answers are vague and varied, and complete stabs in the dark, with none of those asked in a position to make an informed guess. For these people – and, by extension, for a large proportion of the population – the nuclear threat is not a danger that is currently on their radar. With Countdown to Zero, Lucy Walker has identified that ignorance and apathy as a threat in itself, and her film is a passionate call for action against a catastrophe that may be closer than we think.
To help tell this story, Walker and producer Lawrence Bender (who has crusading documentary chops, having produced An Inconvenient Truth) have marshalled an extraordinary group of interviewees. Former heads of state, scientists and even criminals who have smuggled plutonium out of worryingly insecure facilities. Their testimonies are urgent but measured, laying out the facts of the matter in clear and accessible terms, and what's so terrifying about Countdown to Zero is how easy they make it all sound. As the world becomes increasingly destabilised and rogue states emerge, the risk of nuclear weapons falling into dangerous hands is greater than ever. Countdown to Zero depicts the possibility of nuclear disaster as a Sword of Damocles hanging over us all and, in its scariest segment, it suggests that the sword may be dropped by accident as easily as design. A series of anecdotes from the past few decades suggest just how close we've come to a nuclear attack through human error. In 1995, someone from the US military failed to inform Russia of a nuclear test they were conducting, and the film suggests that only the clear thinking of a thankfully sober Boris Yeltsin prevented them taking immediate retaliatory action.
Countdown to Zero is a departure for Walker, whose previous films have seen her follow a group of people and watch as a story emerges. This is a far more journalistic piece of filmmaking, compiling interviews, archive footage and montages into a coherent, persuasive whole. The film is slickly produced, with Walker making effective use of some troubling imagery (recent terrorist attacks in Madrid, London, Bali, New York) and computer graphics that show how easily nuclear weapons can be smuggled into the United States (one does fear that an aspiring terrorist could get some handy hints from this picture). Walker can be guilty of being a little too literal and alarmist in some of her directorial choices, but she generally does a fine job of ensuring the film flows smoothly even as we are being asked to digest a lot of information.
The title Countdown to Zero has a double meaning. Of course it refers to the idea of a bomb ticking down to disaster, but it also signifies the target for complete removal of the world's nuclear weapons. It might be a futile dream but Countdown to Zero makes an impassioned case for the urgency of striving for that goal.
The main extra feature is a 50-minute panel discussion recorded after Countdown to Zero's UK premiere at BAFTA. Lawrence Bender, Bruce Blair, Valerie Plame Wilson, Margaret Beckett and Queen Noor take part in the conversation, which comprehensively covers whatever subjects the film itself might have overlooked. There are also trailers for a number of other Dogwoof releases.
Countdown to Zero is released on DVD on August 15th
Buy Countdown to Zero here