Countdown to Zero (2010)

Magnolia Films, 91 min., Dir. Lucy Walker
As seen at a free screening

I had some expectations for this film going into it, mainly that shot of people in a park which flashes to white and freezes (which actually happens at some point toward the end of the film), and a lot of clocks counting down to zero, which also actually happens, several times. My expectations didn’t totally match with what the film presented, but that didn’t necessarily make it a bad film.

Much of the emphasis of the film is in explaining how close we are to a nuclear disaster. It draws it’s organization scheme from (some might know) the “sword of Damocles” speech John F. Kennedy made to the United Nations, where he stated nuclear disaster could be caused by “accident, miscalculation, or madness.” This was perhaps not the best way to organize the film, as the discussion seemed less focused in the “madness” section and involved much more complex issues than just crazy people with bombs.

A lot was missing: an in-depth discussion of the history of atomic weapons and why they were created, a history of popular resistance to nuclear proliferation, a close look at the United States’ use of nuclear weapons against the Japanese people in World War II and how the rest of the world reacted to that usage of nuclear weapons, which factors into the history of nuclear weapons. The filmmakers instead chose to focus on the multiplicity of ways that nuclear disasters could occur apart from a nuclear exchange between warring nations, with a special emphasis on the ease of obtaining, smuggling, and incorporating nuclear material into a terrorist weapon.

I started out saying to myself “I knew all that,” but upon reflecting there were some startling facts presented in the film that I didn’t know. The film is mostly interviews with experts (although there are interviews with Jimmy Carter, Robert McNamara, and Michail Gorbachev which either too short or edited down too much). There was also a lot of padding. Examples include staged closed caption television shots (which might look familiar to British viewers), endless shots of a blast radius over different world cities, and equally endless shots of nuclear missiles launching from silos.

In terms of the theoretical side of the film, some of the most interesting theories involved how it’s impossible to predict some situations, and just having nuclear weapons endangers everyone in the world by virtue of randomness; once a weapon is detonated, Pandora’s box is opened and our whole way of life shot to hell. Most people will agree with that line of thought. I also know a few people who maintain that we can’t give up nuclear weapons because we would be powerless against a whole host of threats (failed nuclear nation states, terrorist use of nuclear weapons, etc.). To be clear, I don’t subscribe to that opinion, but I did not see a whole lot in the film that would change the mind of someone who does.

In our typical hour plus discussion following a documentary, my wife and I got to the subject of how this film compares with other documentaries we’ve seen in the last four years or so. I felt like some of the issues raised in the film should feel personal, but the filmmakers did not breach the threshold of actually making the threat real and immediate to individuals in a way like (another Magnolia Pictures Co. film) Food Inc. (2010) does. It all comes back to that tricky issue of individual change that I talked about in other documentary reviews.

I won’t drone on about An Inconvenient Truth because I could sit here all day and proselytize about how it’s the perfect documentary in many ways and how its arguments are crafted elegantly and for maximum effect, but it does have a discernible effect on viewers. The big way it does this is by convincing the viewer that he or she is involved in the problem and can exercise personal power to effect change. It also equates the value of a minor change with having collective power, and those changes are only necessary on inconsequential levels. In other words, for a documentary to be effective (in my opinion) it must convince the viewer that:

  1. a change in behavior is warranted,
  2. the path to change or the actions necessary are clear, and
  3. the change is worthwhile on an individual level (it must be at least worth the individual cost incurred by the change).

All three factors are important. For example, Food Inc. makes the consumer aware that his or her individual decisions are what makes the crooked machine run. Is a change warranted? Yes, people and animals are mistreated and our health suffers as a result of the current system. Is there a clear path to effect the change? Yes, we must consume food products that are produced by a better system, one which treats workers and animals ethically and does not create products that are injurious to our health. Is the change worthwhile on an individual level (i.e. should I change the way I consume food?). No. Organic food products that are ethically manufactured are unaffordable for most people without means.

Now, as the credits role and options are flashed on screen for individual action, I ask you, isn’t there an inherent hypocrisy on the part of the film makers by demonstrating that the path to an individual change of behavior is blocked to the average citizen, but then having an expectation that the viewer will have any interest in statements like “buy food from your local farmer”?

Other films do this to better effect. To once again pull out Inconvenient Truth (for the last time) the path to change is simple and often causes the viewer to incur no cost: throw your can into a recycling bin instead of throwing it away. Hey, I can do that! IC is more concerned with convincing people a change is warranted, but the stakes are so low for many of the changes that I can say “Yo Al Gore, I don’t believe in global warming, but I can throw my Clamato can into a recycling bin because you asked nicely.” And yes, if you don’t believe in global warming, your punishment should be drinking only Clamato, forever.

I won’t put all of my problems with the documentary film explosion onto this film, because it is mostly in the genre of raising awareness of an issue instead of promoting individual changes in behavior (despite the invitation to text “demand zero” to 97999 or whatever that message was at the end of the film). However, I’m inclined to believe that first of all, few members of the audience were in favor of nuclear weapons who attended this screening, despite the fact that the film was free to watch. Secondly, I feel no more engaged with the issue than I have always felt before the film. There was some talk bandied about at the conclusion of the film which stressed how popular support caused reductions in nuclear weapons, but it’s basically saying if there is a revolutionary amount of people who organize, band together, and elect new representatives to government, we can change any policy! Weak.

6/10: If you’re in the mood for a double feature, watch Dr. Strangelove, then watch this film. I think they would pair off nicely.