Countdown To Zero

Countdown To Zero

****

Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

The idea of the nuclear arms race and proliferation seems oddly out of date. Something from the era of Greenham Common Peace Women and Star Wars flights of fancy. But Lucy Walker's chilling documentary serves as a reminder that the threat of a nuclear bomb going off somewhere in the world to devastating effect has not diminished just because it has slipped from the public consciousness. In fact, if anything, her film persuasively argues that the probability of one going off due to "accident", "miscalculation" or "madness" has never been greater.

It's a thought that seems almost impossible, but Walker has corralled an impressive number of nuclear scientists, security specialists and politicians - including Jimmy Carter, Tony Blair and Mikhail Gorbachev - who are at pains to endorse that viewpoint.

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Countdown To Zero offers an impressive range of information, from the origins of the splitting of the atom, to descriptions of what would happen to humans caught in a blast which rival Peter Watkins' The War Game in terms of visceral detail. The world has moved on since this film was made - there are references to Osama Bin Laden hiding out in Pakistan, for example - but, if anything, upheaval such as the instability created by the Arab Spring only serves to underline how turbulent certain regimes are.

It also offers an insight, via vox pops from around the globe, into how worryingly blase and ill-informed the general public have become. Do you know, for example, how many countries have access to nuclear weapons? Theoretically, just eight, so would you like to hazard a guess as to how many nuclear weapons that means there are on the planet? 23,335. This is, apparently, supposed to provide some solace - "it used to be 60,000" - but it won't be making me sleep any easier.

It's shockingly easy to make a crude missile, we're told, but what is particularly petrifying is the ease with which highly enriched uranium can be come by. In some parts of the former Soviet Union we are told it was languishing in sheds in circumstances that meant "potatoes were guarded better". As for what drove one man to smuggle out tiny amounts of the deadly substance from his place of work (he was later caught, by pure chance) - "I just needed a new refrigerator," he says.

Walker's film is factually very dense, which by its nature means that some portions of it aren't terribly cinematic - certainly nothing will be lost if you choose to watch this on DVD rather than in the cinema. Frequently, however, she puts contrast of images and information to good use - such as showing us scenes of people enjoying themselves on New Year's Eve in New York's Times Square, as the experts detail the manner in which a nuclear blast will rip us apart.

She also, wisely, allows the information to 'breathe' by breaking up the film with footage that has no voice-over, giving time for the enormity of what is being discussed to really sink in. More of a reminder and a call to (dis)arms than attempting to break new ground, this is a film that particularly, teenagers should be encouraged to watch and consider.

Reviewed on: 29 Jun 2011
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A history of the atomic bomb and the current nuclear arms race.
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