CINEMA: Less Than Zero


COUNTDOWN TO ZERO (2010, directed by Lucy Walker, 91 minutes, U.S.)

BY DAN BUSKIRK FILM CRITIC Growing up in the seventies and eighties, primary school students were no longer ducking and covering yet the idea of nuclear annihilation from Russia still lingered as an imaginable possibility. That anxiety seemed to build to a fever pitch sometime around Reagan’s bluster and the 1983 broadcast of the ABC TV movie The Day After, then dissipated as the cold war came to a close. In recent years I’ve taught film appreciation to middle and high school students, where we’ve watched Matthew Broderick in the 1983 nuclear thriller War Games and Kubrick’s masterpiece Dr. Strangelove and students admit they’ve never thought of the possibility of nuclear apocalypse.

Despite the issue being off the public agenda the nuclear threat still exists, something documentarian Lucy Walker (best known for her doc on Amish juvenile delinquency, The Devil’s Playground) wants to raise awareness of in her new film Countdown To Zero. The threat appears very real, you could make the case that Countdown To Zero is among the most important films of the year but you could also say from a critical standpoint that it is not very exciting cinema.

The facts are disturbing, there are an estimated 23,000 nuclear weapons out there, owned by eight different countries. But nuclear weapons aren’t just something in a safeguarded room in the most secure bunkers of power, they’re actually an industry and it appears impossible to keep an entire industry under lock and key. There have regularly been discoveries of nuclear materials being recovered in the black market but as one talking head says, their discovery has always been found by chance. Al Qaeda has declared its desire to procure a nuclear weapon and the collapsed Soviet Empire seems like a perfect place to find one; one speaker declares the potatoes are better guarded. Then throw in human error, like the time in 2007 when the U.S. loaded six armed nuclear weapons to fly over the country or the time in 1995 when Russia misidentified a meteorological satellite and prepared a nuclear counter-attack. Story after story unfolds, and our future seem to be in the hands of a child at the top of a stairwell, juggling knives on roller skates.

But is this a night out at the movies? Told in what has become standard documentary form, Countdown underscores the scary stuff with menacing drones and the hopeful stuff with U2-ish guitar jangle. Director Walker has picked a policy, not a story as her subject and her premise denies any sort of narrative drive that might propel your interest from one end of the film to the other. And who is gong to choose this film as their afternoon or evening’s entertainment? Overwhelming those who are already well-informed and concerned about the subject.

Where Countdown To Zero really belongs is on television, where the unsuspecting masses could accidentally come across it and realize the gravity of our situation. Yet TV rarely does this sort of investigative reporting these days, replacing such newsy programming with the real life soap operas of missing children and unsolved murders, dramatic eye-catching stories that actually only effect a handful of people. It all serves to make Countdown a frustrating film, a huge story presented like mediocre television on the big screen; a complaint that will seem trivial if we all go up in a mushroom cloud.

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