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Countdown to Zero: Bombarding us with scary factoids

A scene from COUNTDOWN TO ZERO, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

2 out of 4 stars


Countdown to Zero

  • Written and directed by Lucy Walker
  • Classification: PG

The anti-nuke documentary Countdown to Zero features lots of famous talking heads wearing dark, sombre suits and faces. Before and after the fretting presidents and prime ministers (Jimmy Carter, Mikhail Gorbachev and Tony Blair), we get man-on-the-street interviews with giggling, camera-shy strangers of all colours and nationalities.

"What countries have nuclear weapons?" British filmmaker Lucy Walker asks them. (Nine, if you're wondering - the United States, Russia, France, Britain, India, Pakistan, Israel, China and North Korea.)

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"How many countries should have nuclear weapons?" she wonders later.

"Zero!" everyone agrees.

What's with the playful, public-minded Benetton-ad interludes? Well, the rest of Countdown to Zero is so frightening, Walker probably figures we could use cheering up, especially after learning about all the times our planet nearly went kaboom! Like the day in 1961 when a B-52 carrying nuclear bombs crashed over the eastern United States and five of six safety guards failed. Or the Dr. Strangelove moment in 1995 when American rockets investigating the Northern Lights were mistaken by the Russian military for nuclear warheads. President Boris Yeltsin's advisers wanted him to throw down.

"Must be a mistake," Yeltsin grumbled, shooing everyone away from the Big Button.

But there's another reason Walker shows private citizens uniting in a call for nuclear disarmament. We're as responsible for world safety as prime ministers, she's saying. Let's do something! The filmmaker concludes her argument with a gruesome or-else - a scene showing Times Square revellers on New Year's Eve. What would happen to them, the film asks, if a nuke went off in Manhattan?

Nothing good, experts report. Within seconds, a stampeding wind, a blast hotter than the sun, would strip faces clean of flesh.

Walker would undoubtedly respond to complaints of scare tactics by suggesting that sometimes you have to yell to get people's attention. What she's trying to do is alert the world to the potential of nuclear disaster in the same way An Inconvenient Truth created an awareness of global warming.

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Here's hoping she's successful. But even if Walker wins a Nobel Prize (as Al Gore did, in part for An Inconvenient Truth), that will only prove her movie is a bluntly effective media campaign as opposed to a well-articulated documentary.

For really, Countdown to Zero is a mess of a movie - a sprawling PowerPoint argument that covers too much ground way too fast, dispensing Wikipedia-calibre essays on a variety of subjects, from a blurred bio of J. Robert Oppenheimer, creator of the atom bomb, to an unsatisfying sidebar on A.Q. Khan, the world's first door-to-door nuke salesmen.

The film is well-stocked with striking archival footage - for instance, North Koreans swooning at a rally when Kim Jong-Il unveils the bomb. Occasionally, however, we feel bombarded with clips. It's as if Walker is afraid to leave us alone with a thought that isn't illustrated with potent, distracting images.

The film introduces the Yeltsin segment by saying that in 1995, the year of the near-disaster, Pete Sampras ruled tennis, O.J. Simpson went to trial and George Clooney starred in his first big movie. Then, for no reason at all, the film provides snippets of Sampras, Simpson and Clooney.

The Hollywood-celebrity disease perhaps. Another manifestation of L.A. liberalism: Walker's film interviews citizens of every colour, and a variety of world leaders. The only neglected constituency: Republicans. James Baker III, who worked for presidents Reagan and Bushes I and II, is the only GOP member with a speaking part here.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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