What’s really missing from Walker’s documentary is a big, burning ember of optimism.
There’s a theory that if something can happen it will happen. Usually something bad. So it goes in Countdown to Zero, in which a remarkable gallery of politicians and military experts pass us the memo on mankind’s destiny with fiery, planet-destroying nuclear war. Buckle up.
Following up the Oscar-winning efforts of An Inconvenient Truth to save the world from suicide via ecological disaster, producer Lawrence Bender attempts to repeat the trick for atomic Armageddon. Revealing our frighteningly ongoing near-misses with – mostly accidental – nuclear holocaust, director Lucy Walker’s documentary is a sobering, worthy call for disarmament.
Smart talking-heads, including Mikhail Gorbachev, Tony Blair, Jimmy Carter and former US Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, reveal how everything from pointless Cold War willy-waving to a random flock of birds mistaken for incoming Russian nukes has nearly triggered a ludicrous end of days.
There’s only so many times you can watch stock footage of nuclear decimation – big bangs, mushroom clouds, buildings swept into the void – while listening to narration by Brit cinema’s Mr Chuckles himself, Gary Oldman, before the underlying message becomes a depressingly inevitable one.
We’re all going to die. We’re all going to die. We’re all going to die. That’s the message drummed into our aching skulls as Countdown to Zero reiterates how someone is definitely going to trigger the nuclear apocalypse at some point. Beyond this gloomy thought, it has little else to say.
Sure, go to takepart.com, petition the world’s countries to reduce their nuke stockpiles to zero, hope for the best. Abolition as solution, that’s the idea. But as a documentary, there’s just too much repetition and too few surprises.
What’s really missing from Walker’s documentary is a big, burning ember of optimism. Buried in the doomsday anecdotes is a startling story in which Soviet president Boris Yeltsin was faced with a scenario in which he had to push the button to trigger nuclear war. A US attack threat had been detected. Protocols had been followed. Time was up. But for reasons known only to himself, Yeltsin refused to order a reprisal. This is a moment of human hope powerful enough to hang on to, but Countdown to Zero never reaches for it (Yeltsin isn’t interviewed about it).
As worthy an awareness-raiser as Walker’s documentary is, it’s hard to trudge out without feeling that the entire human race is straddling a giant A-bomb, Strangelove-style, as it plummets on a long, unstoppable journey to impact. We’ll meet again, don’t know where, don’t know when, but we’ll meet again some sunny day...
An Inconvenient Truth with nukes.
We’re all going to die, we’re all going to die, we’re all going to die.
A worthy, important effort – but not a great one.