Countdown to Zero
2010, NR, 90 min. Directed by Lucy Walker.
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., July 30, 2010
As someone who spent my high school years in a constant state of low-grade anxiety over the fact that I lived a mere 30 miles from Pantex, the final assembly/disassembly point for every nuclear weapon made in America, watching the excellent anti-nuke doc Countdown to Zero is something of a nightmare flashback. Living in Amarillo in the early Eighties meant existing with the sure knowledge that unimaginable kilotons of Soviet MIRVs were targeted at my doorstep. Add to this calculation the fact that I was also going through puberty and discovering punk rock at the time (UK CND-punks Crass and Conflict still emphatically resonate for me), and, well, you can see how I ended up the political and pop-cultural curmudgeon you read before you. Depressingly, as Countdown to Zero eloquently points out, there have been precious few changes in the nuclear postures of the U.S. and former Soviet Union officials since the fall of the Berlin Wall two decades ago, a fact that breeds a certain unavoidable pessimism in people of a certain age, such as myself. Recounting the history of nukes, mankind's seeming inability to render them obsolete, and the many nightmare scenarios that are cropping up with almost daily frequency in this grim new age of terror-on-demand,Countdown to Zero is less a documentary in the traditional sense than a scathing piece of advocacy journalism. Much of what director Walker chooses to show and tell here is not new. What is fresh and relevant, however, is devastating: Current interviews with former President Jimmy Carter, Mikhail Gorbachev, Tony Blair, Pervez Musharraf, outed CIA agent Valerie Plame Wilson, and goofy Russian ne'er-do-wells collectively offer enough new insight into the ongoing nuclear threat to keep a sane person awake and afraid for weeks. As part of the "social action network" TakePart.com, Countdown to Zero seeks to educate and, hopefully, probably hopelessly, abolish nukes entirely. That is, of course, the only sane thing to do, and also the most difficult (if not impossible, and I'd hedge my bets on that). But Walker's impassioned documentary does what it does well and with great skill. It's easy to watch, impossible to deny, and very, very tough to forget. A quarter-century after The Day After, and it's still the day before. Go figure.