It’s a good year for Lucy Walker with two of her documentaries seeing wide releases and one of them (Waste Land) getting nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary. The other is Countdown to Zero, a didactic film championing nuclear disarmament.
The documentary takes its cue from a quote taken from a speech by John F. Kennedy: “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 then examines the nuclear arms question, divided into the three categories from the quote. It looks at the very real possibility of terrorists getting their hands on nuclear weapons, the ease with which nuclear holocaust can be wrought, and the many near misses that could have brought about the end of the world.
The documentary has a clear point to make, and it makes it repeatedly throughout the film, leaving no room for quibbles and ambivalence. The problem is, however, that the film begins on a high pitch and has nowhere to go but higher. In the end, the film becomes almost hysterical, especially during the ‘near misses’ sequence towards the end or in its frequent close-ups on Robert Oppenheimer. Over images of New Year celebrations in Times Square, we hear in voiceover a description of what exactly would happen if a bomb hit a major city. It is a haunting effect, but one that cannot help but feel entirely engineered by a clever editor who knows how to manipulate an audience. The film isn’t helped either by the fact that it is somewhat out of date, especially when it tries to suggest that we are still in danger from Osama Bin Laden, who was killed after the film was completed
Its very Western-centric outlook does not help the film. Hiroshima and Nagasaki get very little attention despite being cities that have actually been hit by nuclear weapons. The film prefers, instead, to show satellite footage of Western cities with 5-mile radius symbols to show the range of the destruction if a nuclear missile hit them. The film also pays more attention to the deficiencies of other countries, snorting in derision at the old Soviet Union and its poor protection of nuclear material. One of its more touching scenes shows Khrushchev remarking on his sadness over the failed Reykjavik summit, which could have profoundly reduced the numbers of nuclear weapons had it been successful. When it comes to pointing the finger, however, the film breezes over a newspaper headline that mentions that the failure was due to Reagan’s insistence that his Star Wars program would continue. The film ignores America’s culpability after this seeming slip and instead focuses on Khrushchev’s quilt.
Oddly, the film ends on an almost triumphant note, which seems to suggest that the problem is nearly resolved with footage of Obama signing something that could be either significant or insignificant. It fails to convince, seeming more like a decision from a banking perspective. This manages to undercut the tension and the horror that the film had managed to convey so well before.
With a powerful and important message, but with a form that shifts from an awkward how-to guide for prospective terrorists to manipulative melodrama, Countdown to Zero is a documentary that does not need to convince you, but somehow makes a hash out it anyway.