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.

Film Review: Fair Game

Fair Game may well be one of those incidences where the real life story is actually more interesting than the film depiction. The bustling start fizzles, giving way to more sluggish proceedings for the rest of the film.

Valerie Plame is an undercover CIA agent living with her former ambassador husband Joe Wilson and their young twins. Joe is asked to go to Niger to investigate a possible of a uranium deal with Saddam Hussein. Joe reports back that the sale did not occur, but George W. Bush’s administration uses it as justification to go to war with Iraq. When Joe speaks out publicly, Valerie’s identity is leaked…

The problem with a cinematic adaptation of recent historical events is that most of the audience will remember how the real events played out. This can work as an appeal of the film; people who were intrigued by events may want to see a dramatisation. Nevertheless, when such incidents have been widely reported, others may have little interest in a story they already are very familiar with.

Fair Game combines feature-film drama with real news footage from the time. This interspersing of the fictional and the factual goes some way to grounding the drama in reality. Writers Jez and John-Henry Butterworth (basing their screenplay on books by Joe Wilson and Valerie Plame) amalgamate the political with the personal. Rather than just a chain of events, Fair Game illuminates the impact of the revelation on Plame, and how this affects the relationship she has with her family. In trying to provide this very personal angle to the story, filmmakers are only partially successful. The strain the events have on Plame and Wilson is clear, however these scenes are not particularly gripping.

Perhaps most interesting in Fair Game is the subplot featuring Plame’s on-going cases. The film insinuates that many are placed in danger by Plame’s sudden removal from duties. As Fair Game concentrates on Plame and Wilson however, these cases are pushed by the wayside. It is a shame, as these strands offered the most intrigue and tension.

Naomi Watts offers a competent performance as Valerie Plame. Sean Penn is also capable, although the role of the impassioned, righteous individual is very typical of his choice of role.

Ultimately it is Doug Liman’s lackadaisical direction that lets Fair Game down. The film should have offered more tension and more momentum. In this case, the interesting story has not translated into an interesting film.