“Countdown to Zero” – Your credit card debt may be irrelevant

Countdown to Zero

Directed by Lucy Walker

2010, USA

For most people under 30, Nuclear War is kitsch. Like all the stalwart characters of the Cold War, from Mao to Chez to the USSR, the spectre of nuclear war now seems like a silly superstition your parents believed in; something from a time with two Germanys, a 3rd World and seemingly dozens of Kennedys. The idea of large-scale war between nations is a foreign concept for most young people, and the idea that those nations could destroy most of the planet in the process now reads like a sci-fi story (or a Michael Bay movie). As such, Countdown to Zero seems at first glance to come out of nowhere, or at least out of context.

Some might anticipate a largely historical doc tracing the origins of the nuclear bomb, but Countdown is really a three-part film with a considerably greater sweep; one part nuclear history, one part Cold War war-stories and one part nuclear panic for a new generation. Walker uses part of a speech by JFK as a framing device for the entire film:  “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 three-part structure examines the nuclear threat by “Accident,” “Miscalculation” and “Madness.” While the first two may come off as somewhat exaggerated, the “madness” portion may well scare the crap out of you.

Countdown is presented as a standard, talking-heads doc with an extremely impressive array of accompanying illustrative footage. It also boasts a truly amazing line-up of interviewees, from Ex-CIA operative Valerie Plame Wilson, to President Carter, Mikhail Gorbachev, Robert McNamara, former Secretary of State James Baker III and many other Cold Warriors. Most of them tell stories of near nuclear annihilation from the 50’s, 60’s early 70’s, many of which are amazing, if somewhat overblown.

For instance, Bruce Blair, president of the World Security Institute (an ominously named non-profit that co-produced the film) tells an incredible story. He claims that as a former launch officer, a mere lieutenant for the Air Force in Montana, he could have exploited a flaw in the launch system security and launched hundreds of nuclear missiles himself. Apparently, the Strategic Air Command leaders didn’t like McNamara’s launch code system and installed an override code that even Blair was aware of. Amazingly, the code was 000-000-000-000.

There are many other stories of Cold War madness, illustrating several instances of supposed near nuclear annihilation by Accident or Miscalculation. According to the film, weather balloons, Geese, clouds and general Dr. Strangelove-esque paranoia were all nearly responsible for full-blown nuclear war. While the stories are all undoubtedly true, many former US and Soviet officials have claimed that Countdown exaggerates how close we came to the end. Most, like former Russian Major-General Vladimir Dvorkin (not interviewed in the film), claim that while these instances certainly raised dangerous alarms, a nuclear exchange was never moments away.

A somewhat scarier reality under the “Accident” banner is the discussion of the hundreds of US nuclear missiles still pointed at Russia (and vice-versa), all still set on “short-code” launching sequences. In 2011, more than 35 years after the death of any doctrine based in the lunacy of Mutually Assured Destruction (M.A.D.), the fact that these missiles remain active and ready to launch on a moment’s notice seems particularly insane.

While Countdown’s presentation of the first two scenarios for nuclear annihilation are revealing, if slightly benign as an actual threat, Walker makes a very compelling case for the threat from Madness. This section outlines the dangers and reality of nuclear terrorism, and they feel quite palpable indeed.

First, the film outlines what terrorists would need to make a nuclear bomb and illustrates that the only real barrier is obtaining nuclear material, such as highly enriched uranium. Then, we’re introduced to a Russian construction worker who stole nearly 2kg. of uranium from a wooden shed in a navel yard by simply breaking a padlock. He had no idea what it was worth or who to sell it to, but he wanted to buy a new fridge and a new stove. Another man in Ukraine simply walked out of the nuclear processing plant he worked in with a few grams of uranium in his pocket every day until he had several kilos in his apartment. He was arrested trying to sell it to some tire-thieves in Moscow in exchange for a luxury car. We are told that there have been many cases of arrests for smuggling weapons-grade uranium, and that all of them have been accidental. In literally every case, those involved were caught simply by chance and the thefts had never even been detected.

As if that weren’t upsetting enough, Countdown outlines the often-acknowledged danger of a nuclear bomb being smuggled into a country in one of the millions of shipping containers moving around the world at any given moment. According to the film, the nuclear detectors used in major ports to pick up radiation from nuclear material can be thwarted with a simple lead pipe, making the uranium impossible to detect.

For anyone inclined to doom-mongering who might feel the need for optimism, you’re offered some pretty limp-wristed consolation. Walker made this film ostensibly as an Inconvenient Truth for Nukes, a movie-with-a-mission, aimed at encouraging the complete and global elimination of nuclear weapons. In that regard, it’s somewhat naïve and immature, highlighted by the closing credits which include a phone number you can “text” to help contribute to nuclear non-proliferation and “Demand ZERO!” One has to wonder how many texts were sent from Russia, Korea, or Pakistan. This underscores the problem with the film’s mandate; as it illustrates itself, nuclear weapons are either in the hands of governments or terrorists, neither of which is likely to relinquish the most powerful weapon ever invented due to public pressure (let alone “texts”).

Countdown to Zero may not offer any real insight into the nuclear age or the future of atomic weapons, but it’s an extremely well-made doc that will, at times, make you wonder if you shouldn’t just live for the moment and discard your possibly transitory obligations.

Mike Waldman



By Mike Waldman

Michael Waldman is a documentary film reviewer for Sound on Sight and occasional guest on Sound On Sight Radio. He is overly obsessed with documentaries and is consequently largely out of touch with film in general. His favorite doc is Bus 174, his favorite director is P.T. Anderson and his favorite guilty pleasure involves something with bacon on it and a poorly researched documentary on Christian Fundamentalism. In his other life, he teaches kindergarten and works with children with behavioral issues.

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