Tuesday, 23 August 2011

Film Review: Countdown To Zero

According to the late Lieutenant-Colonel Alexander Lebed a guesstimate of around 100-500 nuclear weapons have gone missing since the collapse of the Soviet Union. In many ways this is a far more frightening reality than that of the Mutually Assured Destruction dichotomy that dominated during the Cold War. If there were one compelling argument you needed to convince someone that nuclear weapons are a bad idea, that would be the one. And strangely for a film which is glaringly pro-nuclear disarmament it is a case which Countdown to Zero fails to make.

Proudly boasting on its poster "From the people who brought you 'An Inconvenient Truth'", Countdown to Zero uses the same cheap emotive technique, fear, to present its case. While it might not include the same amount of fallacies and scientific half-truths, Countdown to Zero relies heavy on the scaremongering to present its argument for total nuclear disarmament. The problem with doing so however requires it to be large in scope as it attempts to cover all possible angles relating to nuclear weapons. As such the informative quality of the documentary wavers as it seeks to fit as much into ninety-minutes as it possibly can. The result is that it only ever touches briefly on a multitude of topics, some even deserving an entire documentary themselves.

Countdown to Zero starts by creating a picture of poorly guarded nuclear materials in Russia, easily smuggled out the country and available to various state sponsors of terrorism. It implies a fait accompli that, in all likelihood, terrorists probably already have the weapons and could very easily get one into a Western city on a whim. As is the uncertainty surrounding nuclear weapons, the lack of information here serves to create an equal incertitude which manifests into fear. Indeed, Countdown to Zero only ever tells you half the story. While it may be true that there are gaping holes in the security of fissile materials, it never bothers to probe further on the subject. It stops short of asking - after all its implications of how easy it is to get this material, build a bomb, and deliver it to the target - "then why hasn't anyone done it yet?". Indeed, it shies away from the logical extrapolation this trail of thought would entail, instead resting on the conjecture it conjures up to keep its hyperbolic bowl of fear sustainable.

Further, for a film that goes on about how close we've already come to planetary destruction, it curiously omits our closest shave in the Cuban missile crisis. Why would it do that unless to avoid highlighting that humans can actually be responsible enough to avoid such horrors rather than act like a reckless ape? Indubitably such a 'positive' outcome would shit all over its theatrics. Countdown to Zero likes to drape its tales of near misses in drama, such as when in 1995 the Russians interpreted an American satellite launch as a nuclear attack, only for a thankfully sober Boris Yeltsin not to push the button. Likewise, it feels the need to dwell on failed negotiations toward nuclear disarmament such as the Reykjavik Summit, yet curiously barely references tentative, positive treaty discussions such as SALT, START and New START. This seems to be a cheap emotional ploy to sway the less informed on the matter, as if to use their convenient omission to hammer its pro-disarmament call to action home.

Yes, Countdown to Zero highlights some ridiculous misjudgements and human errors like when nuclear weapons accidentally fell off a plane and thankfully didn't explode. And yes, there is more than a case to be made for "why take the risk? get rid of all of them". However, the issue with this film is its tone, less a documentary and more a melodrama. Nuclear weapons are no doubt a serious issue, but its attempts to 'educate' are condescending, particularly the way it goes round interviewing clueless members of the public in an "If only they new the facts" kind of way. It implies that you are in the same bracket as these morons. Likewise its artistic technique of using a tennis ball to symbolize the amount of fissile material needed to level a major city is ridiculously patronising. It also enjoys showing aerial maps of cities with super imposed blast range radiuses and security camera footage as if to say that anybody in the crowd could be carrying a tennis ball-sized bomb. Yes, we get it, but perhaps that time would have been better spent trying to flesh out the documentary.

There is nothing wrong with the sentiment of Countdown to Zero. However, it is too overwrought to be taken as a sombre exposition. Like An Inconvenient Truth this only serves to preach to the choir; probably CND activists. While it distinctly avoids mentioning or interviewing the group, probably out of fear for being labelled a leftist agitprop, you can't shake the aura that this hysterical film would be rather fitting as their flagship propaganda treatise. Countdown to Zero means well, but it is a shrill piece which sells on inducing fear and panic.