Friday, September 3, 2010

Countdown to Zero: A Review (Review #113)


Countdown to Zero gave me much to think on, but oddly, most of my thinking did not involve the subject at hand: nuclear proliferation. Rather, my mind floated between my childhood and my thinking of current cinema viewers.

I am a product of the 1980s, and as such remember the fear & paranoia nuclear weapons unleashed from Hollywood. I'm not old enough to remember The Day After, but I do recall the earnestness of Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, even a thinly-disguised "very special episode" of The Golden Girls. When you have Rose Nylund on a peace mission to Moscow, you know the issue is serious.

The curious thing is that, in spite of all the protests calling for a nuclear freeze or nuclear disarmament going on in the Age of Reagan, I was never terrified about "the bomb" going off. Perhaps it had to do with childhood obliviousness, but having the Russians blow us up (or conquer us, like they did in a miniseries called Amerika--does anyone remember that one?) was just never on my lists of worries. Therefore, whatever fear there was about "the bomb" escaped me.

The second thoughts Countdown to Zero unleashed involved something that in my entire life has never happened: in all the years of going to the movies, Countdown to Zero is the first film of any kind (animated, documentary, even silent) where I was the only person there. Just me. I had the whole theater to myself. On a Friday evening of all things.

I've come close: Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work was almost empty, but three other people showed up as the movie began. What made that remarkable was that her documentary was showing on a Wednesday night (we're talking around 9-9.30). Same thing almost happened at An Education: I almost had the whole theater to myself, but a few came in also at the last minute. Even really lousy documentaries like Celsius 41.11 or films like An American Carol or The Second Chance had at least one other person show up.

Countdown to Zero however is the first time I've ever been completely alone in a theater. Talk about The Final Countdown.

In any case, I digress.

Director Lucy Walker gathers a who's who of experts and leaders (Tony Blair, Mikhail Gorbachev, Jimmy Carter) to tell us how close we all are to nuclear annihilation. We begin with just how the first nuclear bomb came to be, then followed by various terrorist attacks ranging from Madrid and Bali down to Oklahoma City and New York on September 11th, 2001. We're told on how easy it is to acquire highly enriched uranium (H.E.U.) from the remnants of the Soviet Union, and how we can all be exterminated due to, in the words of President Kennedy, "accident, miscalculation, or madness".

We get a run-down as to who has the bomb, from the U.S. and U.K. to Israel (which has never confirmed it) and the bitter enemies India and Pakistan, right down to North Korea. It discusses the role of Dr. A.Q. Khan, the 'father of the Islamic bomb', especially how he had no qualms about dealing with both the Chinese and the North Koreans to get his hands on the bomb. We learn of Iran's determination to get their hands on the bomb, and how the Iranians and the North Koreans were hand in glove to help each other get what they wanted in terms of nuclear weapons (and oddly enough, justifying former President George W. Bush's view about the Axis of Evil), and ends with a call to do what we can to stop the insanity (such as banning production of nuclear weapons, destroying the stockpiles we have, and a virtual nuclear freeze).

Countdown to Zero has as its center J. Robert Oppenheimer, the creator of the bomb who forever regretted the fact. We begin and end with him, first working to create this weapon and ending with his famous quote when he saw it tested for the first time, quoting Hindu scripture, "Now I am become Death, The Destroyer of Worlds", and the man on the verge of tears.

Countdown to Zero strikes me as something created by an overly enthusiastic and energetic graduate student filled with liberal euphoria about the rightness of his/her cause. I don't blame her for trying, and this is an important subject. The biggest problem is that is is couched within so many points that one starts to wonder exactly what she is trying to say.

As I left the theater, I kept wondering if Walker shouldn't have put a focus on one of the various topics she hit on. She could have focused on the dangerous world of Dr. Khan, a man who was not above dealing in deception in order to get Pakistan the bomb. She could have focused on the sheer lunacy of governments working feverishly to get their hands on the bomb (for my money, the most chilling moment in Countdown to Zero comes when we see the montage of countries celebrating the successful testing of bombs, down to hearing the Pakistanis say they will get the bomb 'even if we have to eat grass').

We can extend that last one to a focus on how governments ignore truly pressing needs of their people just so they can find a way to destroy well as how the population celebrates the fact they have nothing to eat or homes to sleep under so long as they can disintegrate the planet as a whole. Walker could have also focused on the ease of acquiring nuclear material, or on how South Africa decided to abandon its nuclear program, or on how Iran and North Korea are great threats.

No, instead we have a wide smorgasbord of information, told with a dull but sincere urgency. Although the film is 90 minutes, it feels far far longer.

Countdown to Zero also suffers from what can only be described as naivete. We can place our hopes that President Obama will work to eliminate nuclear weapons, but can we take Russian President Dmitri Medvedev or his puppet-master, I mean, his Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, to do the same? Ronald Reagan said it best when he said, "Trust but verify". How could we possibly do that with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad or Kim Jong-Il?

Countdown to Zero seems to think they are pretty much like us and not tyrannies that cannot be trusted. There was an interesting point raised in Countdown to Zero, that North Korea believes Saddam Hussein was ousted because he had no nuclear bombs (though it wasn't for lack of trying), therefore they rushed to get their hands on it. In a case of unintended consequences, Countdown to Zero almost give Bush cover for his invasion of Iraq or his ideas that Iran/Iraq/North Korea are dangers to the U.S.

Nuclear proliferation, especially if it were to fall in the hands of groups like Al-Qaeda, the Taliban, or a group like the Japanese cult Aum Shimrikyo (which was responsible for the sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway system and which also attempted to acquire nuclear material), is a serious issue that should be discussed. Countdown to Zero took up that challenge, and while its goals were noble, its methods were heavy-handed to the point of boredom.

It would have served its goals better by trying for one subject than trying to hit so many targets at once. It might be respect for what it talked about, but cinematically, you could say it will give audiences Mutually Assured Boredom.


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