One of the few documentaries ever to show at Cannes, granted a private screening for Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, the agitprop activist documentary Countdown to Zero delivers a blast from a collective past when the threat of nuclear annihilation loomed like a gigantic mushroom cloud over the horizon.
Nowadays that threat feels obsolete, something left behind long ago with duck-and-cover drills, double-knit polyester pants suits and Charlie’s Angels posters, existing in the 21st century only as a creaky plot device in action movies. Countdown to Zero flattens that misapprehension to the ground, presenting an all-too-vivid picture of our still insanely nuclear-weaponized world. If that doesn’t sound so appealing, be assured that the filmmakers have sweetened the medicine with incredible access, footage, graphics and visual effects that make the message gripping, even (although one hesitates to use the word) entertaining.
The film begins with footage of Robert Oppenheimer, the director of WWII’s “Manhattan Project,” the brilliant theoretical physicist who let the genie out of the bottle, the eternal bearer of the awful epithet “father of the atomic bomb.” His desolate eyes haunt the film like a specter, bearing witness to his post-war advocacy of nuclear disarmament (which got him the thanks of security clearance stripping and blacklisting).
This gravity is quickly countered by the jubilant celebrations of country after country who thereafter develop nuclear weapon capability for themselves. Crowds cheer, strangers hug, de Gaulle crows, “Our national glory is restored!” Walter Cronkite intones the phrase “membership in the nuclear club,” and it’s a club everyone wants to join. “We will make the bomb even if we have to eat grass,” Pakistani leaders vow, and when they succeed, devout citizens rejoice, “Allah is great!” Sobering and terrifying as it is to see the world map click into the nuclear red country by country, it’s hard to counter with much conviction when Irani president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad argues against western hypocrisy, “Why should only you have it?”
Elegant animations, smart analogies, stunning images and state-of-the art cinematography techniques clearly explicate disturbing concepts like the ease of smuggling highly enriched uranium (HEU) into the United States or the leakiness of the former Soviet Union’s nuclear arsenal. HEU seems to be the copper piping of world-class scoundrels. Easy to scavenge, easy to sell, nearly impossible to get caught, especially if you have no compunctions at all.
Particularly eerie is a short passage on a handsome, neatly coiffed small-time Russian hood named Oleg Khintsagov who sold HEU to fund the purchase of the cars he loved—Lamborghinis and Jaguars, whose foreign consonants he relishes with a charming accent. Even more disturbing is the story of apparently completely amoral Pakistani national A.Q. Khan, a Johnny Appleseed of nuclear armament, who gallivanted around the world selling technology and bomb designs to rogue states including Iran, North Korea and Libya.
Despite the verve with which the nuclear peril is visually illustrated, and the impressive roster of talking heads whose comments actually surprise and illuminate (Gorbachev in particular comes across as a leader of great thoughtfulness and conscience), what truly moves in this film are the beautifully clear satellite aerial shots of Beijing, Paris, Berlin, Rio de Janeiro, Moscow, New York, interspliced with surveillance camera street footage—orderly, civilized urban grids packed with rampant life, still mercifully intact and undisrupted. The apotheosis of this implied contrast between life and death occurs in a beautifully edited sequence in which the annual Times Square New Year countdown is conflated with countdown to nuclear launch.
And for the coup de grace, the voice of the polymath Oppenheimer (who read the “Bhagavad Gita” in the original Sanskrit as an undergrad at Harvard while studying Greek Classics and winning honors in physics) quotes the god Vishnu: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”
Unfortunately, the film does not end there. Four-fifths of the way through, “Countdown to Zero” tips from exhaustive to exhausting. Nuclear devastation is no laughing matter, to be sure, but perhaps it is an indication of this film’s overearnestness that the comprehensive explanation of the nuclear-blast-by-error-and-misjudgment scenario makes no mention of Homer Simpson, shorthand for accidental Doomsday if ever there existed one. D’oh!
In other words, the measured sententiousness begins to wear and one longs for the lunacy of Dr. Strangelove. The last fifteen minutes are overkill. Pun intended. Especially the faceless Greek choir chanting a barraging list of all the horrendous effects of a major nuclear blast. Nuclear war = bad. Very, very bad. If we all agree to agree and sign the protest right now (or text message one’s nuclear protest, as the movie urges us to do), there might still be time to make a donut run.
Some sharp cutting would have made this excellent film a 100%. As it is, the first seventy minutes make one of the most compelling documentaries of the year. It’s just that, after that, you may find yourself counting down to the end.