Countdown To Zero

A new nuclear anger-cum-paranoia-inducing documentary

In an address before the Assembly of the United Nations in 1961, John F. Kennedy gravely warned that “Every man, woman and child lives under a nuclear sword of Damocles, 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.” Has that situation changed? Forty years on, the threat, at least in the public eye, seems to have diminished. But then, did the situation change? Or did we just stop talking about it?

That’s just what Countdown to Zero, the nuclear anger-cum-paranoia-inducing documentary looks to answer. And the interesting thing about the film is that rather than producing a lingering fear of nuclear apocalypse – everybody wiped out; the earth scorched and the planet uninhabited – the film seems to centre on the far more worrying possibility of a maimed and desolated humanity limping on afterwards. As several of the documentary’s interviewees testify what would surely be a far worse outcome – our survival after attack – is characterised by blindness, burned bodies, destroyed hospitals and police stations, civil panic, the destruction of civil liberty laws, and the possibility that, having seen that it is possible to produce a controlled nuclear attack, it can happen again.Certainly, Countdown to Zero, in looking to educate as much as accuse, plays on the fact that nuclear fallout is still a serious danger but less of a political tool, meaning the public hardly hear anything about it. Several scenes show members of the public, from a number of countries, taking wild stabs at how many nations are recognised as having nuclear capability, with little success.


Nobody really knows, or so the argument goes. And if people aren’t educated as to the threat, what pressure is there on governments to address the issue? Yet despite that, the number of nations with nuclear capability has grown steadily over the years, so that in 2011 there are five nations which are part of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty – the U.S.A, Russia, the U.K, France, China – and three further nations that aren’t part of that agreement to limit the spread of nuclear weapons: India, Pakistan and North Korea.This is the film’s main tack: if, as Kennedy outlined, we’re open to the threat of a nuclear disaster by means of accident, miscalculation or madness – and director Lucy Walker skilfully, by returning over and over to the Damocles motif, outlines all three – then that threat is always magnified by an increase in the volume of nuclear weapons or the number of people with nuclear capability.

To that end, Countdown to Zero argues that we’re in as much danger now, or perhaps even more danger, than we were in the days of Cold War paranoia. After all, the political power of nuclear capability is tantalising; journalist Mike Chinoy, speaking with Walker, claims that ‘North Korea […] see nukes as the one thing that makes them the country that is taken seriously by the U.S.A and the other big players’, and Pervez Musharraf, the former President of Pakistan, said at the time of the country’s announcement of their successful nuclear programme, that it was ‘The first time we’ve achieved something which places us in the ranks of very, very few countries of the world.’So nuclear capability is worth its weight in gold, and the effect is catching. Israel and large-scale terrorist organisations are already perceived to have nuclear capability. Indeed, while some smaller rebel groups have been caught, the film certainly wants you to wonder whether some weren’t, and the alarming news that an Eastern European facility kept uranium in an unguarded shed is worth dwelling on.

But for all its postulating “nuclear weapons are bad no matter so get rid of them all!”, Countdown to Zeroseems tacitly to claim that more likely than an accident or miscalculation is the detonation of a bomb by the shady and ill-defined architects of the “terrorist threat”, and what that would do not to the world but to ourworld. That the film comments with alarming derision on the dangers of Iran’s nuclear capability, and looks suspiciously at Pakistan, but does little to consider the impact of nuclear programs in Israel and India – surprise surprise, the West’s allies – is very telling.And of course, proliferation is the ultimate problem. But the one thing that this very well-informed, easy to follow, educational and emotive documentary on nuclear power could have done, but didn’t, was looked into the complex and ambiguous world of power politics, and shown just why Iran wants nuclear capability, and why North Korea see it as a bargaining tool, and how that argument, to some extend makes sense.As Chinoy said, they want to be taken seriously. If they’re not going to be taken seriously, is that partly our fault?
Countdown to Zero tries to be as non-political as possible. Its main argument, that the possibility of nuclear fallout occurring through accident, miscalculation or bad intent are so comparatively high that the only solution is to bring global nuclear stockpiles to the definite level of zero, is a very sound one. But the feeling that we, the privileged countries, can be a little more trusted with them than can the rest still lingers over the film.A global reduction of nuclear capability, even to total zero, is very certainly an incredibly good idea; that the film is a perfect testament to. But that won’t be easy at all, mostly because of the political economy nuclear capability holds, and the film doesn’t – though it should – give equal credence to that argument when it focuses on the more terrifying ones.Nonetheless, Countdown to Zero is a strong, well made, and galvanising film that tackles a difficult topic for which a simple answer isn’t in existence.