Countdown to Zero offers eerie reminder of enduring nuclear threat

Lucy Walker's doc is refreshingly light on ideaology

Countdown to Zero's exposé of nuclear proliferation feels like the doom-crying cousin to the current wave of 1980s nostalgia films. Movies from Adventureland to The House of the Devil hark back to Reagan-era music and fashion, so the new documentary's evocation of Cold War nuclear anxieties fits right in.

One of Countdown's major points is that the nuclear threat didn't collapse with the Berlin Wall. The world currently has fewer nukes than it did — an estimated 23,000, down from a high of 60,000 — but they're easier than ever to buy, build or steal. Between the possibilities of unintended launches and deliberate terrorism, Countdown asserts that nukes are just as scary as you remember.

Documentarian Lucy Walker uses as a framing device a passage from John F. Kennedy's 1961 speech to the United Nations: "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 film's sections examine "madness," "accident" and "miscalculation" in turn.

"Madness" finds the possibility of terrorists or rogue states building nuclear weapons to be depressingly high. One expert estimates that, counting the equipment and the services of trained scientists, you could construct a nuke for less than $6 million. Countdown includes actual interviews with Russian individuals caught trying to peddle highly enriched uranium, as well as hair-raising details about the vulnerability of U.S. ports: 100 pounds of uranium could be smuggled in a container the size of a six-pack of beer.

The sections on "accident" and "miscalculation" tend to overlap but include some equally alarming anecdotes. America's nuclear fail-safes were riddled with security holes. A former U.S. serviceman who worked as one of those "Turn your key!" officers recalls that the launch codes were such common knowledge before 1977 that he and his partner could have easily faked a launch order. When he saw Dr. Strangelove, he thought, "We were only lieutenants, but we could've started World War III as easily as Gen. Jack D. Ripper."

One of the nearest misses to global thermonuclear war came after the Cold War in 1995, when the U.S. launched a scientific missile over Norway, which the Russians misinterpreted as a potential first strike at Moscow. The Kremlin opened the "nuclear football" and then-President Boris Yeltsin had five minutes to decide whether or not to empty his nation's nuclear silos at the United States. Obviously, Yeltsin kept a sober head.

At times, Countdown's organization scheme gets a little fuzzy. Walker sporadically harks back to the Manhattan Project and presents archival footage of Robert Oppenheimer as a melancholy prophet. Brief interviews span from Jimmy Carter to Mikhail Gorbachev, but the most compelling speakers tend to be the authors and experts. Joe Cirincione of the Ploughshares Fund offers some particularly colorful commentary. When he discusses Pakistani nuclear scientist and alleged arms dealer A.Q. Khan, he quips, "He gave them 24/7 technology support. Got a problem? Call 1-800-AQ-KHAN."

The documentary repeatedly shows helicopter shots of the world's major cities and concludes by juxtaposing Times Square's New Year's countdown with the potential devastation of a nuclear detonation. Countdown presents more doomsday scenarios than a season of "24" and enough apocalyptic imagery to rival Roland Emmerich's blockbusters.

Outed CIA agent Valerie Plane Wilson serves as one of the film's primary talking heads, but Countdown to Zero keeps ideology to a minimum, a refreshing choice following a decade of angry documentaries of the Michael Moore model. Most of Countdown proves so alarming that it could support a case for a hawkish military build-up, but the film's final 10 minutes make an impassioned pitch for zero-tolerance nuclear nonproliferation. The film leaves audiences hoping that the survival instinct can cross international borders and party lines.