Countdown to Zero: Engaging, Illuminating, Powerful, Interesting, and Enlightening

Countdown to Zero, a documentary about the history of nuclear weapons, lays out the most non-sensationalized, perfectly rational argument for complete nuclear disarmament I have ever seen presented on screen or off. Many of the world’s nuclear experts show that the idea of safety behind a nuke is nothing more than a myth that requires faith.

President Kennedy, in his 1961 address before the United Nations said, “Today, every inhabitant of this planet must contemplate the day when this planet may no longer be habitable. Every man, woman and child lives under a nuclear sword of Damocles, hanging by the slenderest of threads, capable of being cut at any moment by accident or miscalculation or by madness.”

Countdown to Zero uses this speech, and specifically the words madness, accident, and miscalculation to outline the history of the nuclear development, its destruction, and near catastrophes. They unravel the fabric of ignorance, secrecy, and safety associated with nuclear weapons. Highlighted are the problems of catching people stealing fissionable materials out of the Eastern-bloc countries, the ease of getting that material into the United States, all of the known-missing American nuclear weapons, the nuclear programs of other countries, how nuclear weapons are made, and the potential of the weapons getting into the wrong hands.

It is obvious to me that the filmmakers of Countdown to Zero set out to make a dispassionate argument for completely eradicating nuclear weapons. There is no moral conversation or ethical dilemma presented in the film. There are no hippy peace loving pacifists, so there is a distinctive lack of intellectual patchouli. The descriptions of how the bomb works on people is composed and clear. The people in the movie range from former Russian leader Mikhail Gorbachev, former American President Jimmy Carter, former Prime Minister of England Tony Blair, United States CIA Agent Valerie Plame, former launch technicians, and national security experts. It is strictly and simply a fact-based account of why it is less safe to have nuclear weapons, even if you trust all of the governments involved, than it is to hide behind them.

Throughout the film, people in different cities all over the world are asked what seems like simple questions about nuclear weapons; including how many nuclear weapons there are, how many, and which countries have nuclear programs. I consider myself generally ahead of the curve when it comes to staying up on important political issues and I did not answer a single question correctly. No one that they showed on-screen could either. The general level of world ignorance on the subject of nuclear weapons is disheartening, and personally, a bit shaming. Gently exposing personal ignorance using a peer group piques curiosity, and tenderly deflates the ego, so the audience realizes what they don’t know and wants to learn the answers. Director Lucy Walker employs this brilliant technique to make the viewer receptive and inquisitive.

Before I saw Countdown to Zero, I believed that because the idea of the A-bomb exists, it was inevitable that they would exist, and that it was better if we have the nukes as a deterrent, than to have them used against us. When I learned how many times we have almost nuked our own country, lost our own nukes, unwittingly shipped nuclear weapons, nearly caused a nuclear holocaust, and how flippantly some members of the military treat the most powerful weapon ever invented, I nearly fell out of my chair. The rest of the world isn’t the only or most pressing concern, human error will occur when it comes to a nuclear weapon. It is only a matter of time.

Countdown to Zero is one of the most engaging, illuminating, powerful, interesting, and enlightening documentaries I have ever seen. It is not often that I’m glad my ignorance is exposed. I suspect even vehement proponents of nuclear weapons will find themselves questioning their assumptions, and examining their beliefs. Any conscientious world citizen won’t miss an opportunity to see this informative and enlightening film. I know I’m going to see it again.

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