Film Review: Countdown to Zero

Lucy Walker’s Countdown to Zero is an interesting but entirely subjective look at nuclear weapons. It is accessible enough to be understood by those with a very limited knowledge on the subject matter.

Countdown to Zero traces the history of the nuclear bomb from its origins to current day stockpiling by nuclear powers. Explaining issues surrounding nuclear bombs in three categories (Madness, Accident and Miscalculation), Walker highlights the threat these weapons pose…

The background on the development of the first nuclear bomb is very interesting, and works as succinct history lesson at the beginning of the film. As perhaps is true of all documentaries, it is the facts that are actually most fascinating. The chapter on how to obtain materials to create a nuclear weapon were worrying, particularly as so much detail was given. Those wishing to make a nuclear bomb would easily be able to obtain the knowledge, but nevertheless it was unsettling to be offered instructions from the film.

Insights from a variety of sources give credence to Walker’s documentary. It was interesting to hear views from a variety of sources, including Tony Blair, Mikhail Gorbachev and Valerie Plame. Particularly notable was Gorbachev’s insight into his negotiations with Ronald Reagan in the 1980s. There certainly seemed to be a degree of hindsight in the way the former Russian president was speaking.

The most absorbing aspect of Countdown to Zero is the accounts of near-misses. Walker wisely avoids going into too much detail about the Cuban missile crisis as it is so well known, and instead concentrates on lesser-known accounts of imminent nuclear danger. These are fascinating, perhaps because so little has been previously reported about them. They also act as excellent illustrations of how a mistake or misunderstanding could have led to nuclear catastrophe.

Although Countdown to Zero relies on facts and opinions of those in the know, the agenda of the documentary is clear. Walker’s negative stance on nuclear weapons is palpable, and results in tactics that detract overall.  With the desire to warn viewers about the nuclear threat, the tone can be a little off-putting. The 5-mile radius maps that are frequently depicted reek of scaremongering, as does the focus on Times Square. Although the point being made is clear, this location has little to do with the content of the documentary. Furthermore, concentrating on this one location at a particular time leads to an implication that it would somehow be worse or more important if a nuclear bomb hit there rather than any other place in the world.

Countdown to Zero is effective in its aims, but could have been toned down a little in terms of the preaching-factor. Nonetheless, it is an interesting watch.

Countdown to Zero will be premiering on Demand Zero Day, 21st June 2011. Click here for participating cinemas.