Documentary filmmaker Lucy Walker has crafted an impassioned prayer for nuclear disarmament, unlikely to convince anyone that the solution to world security is further proliferation. It’s a whirlwind tour of human failure and balls out paranoia, sporting a cast of characters seemingly all committed to Durkheim’s doctrine of egoistic suicide. It’s not just hard to identify with these people, it’s impossible. Such difficulties affirm one’s own humanity but leave you a little less secure at the close.
It’s a curiously apolitical film, one unafraid to splice in the oratory of hypocrites who nevertheless strike a supportive tone. It’s one thing to use a grandiloquent speech by John F. Kennedy to frame the debate; stirring talk of abolishing the weapons of war before they abolish us and so forth, but Kennedy was a president that played on the fears of ordinary Americans, upping the apocalyptic rhetoric in his election campaign as a vanguard against Soviet aggression; a stance which made it politically impossible for him to disarm in office. There’s nothing of this in Walker’s account, nor the worst of it, namely that even as he spoke, Kennedy knew the threat to be substantially less than he claimed. Cuba? Well, maybe you have to see that in the context of the Bay of Pigs. We reap what we sow.
Similarly the inclusion of Tony Blair, indignant as ever, and providing a talking head that yawns its way through the familiar script about Iran’s nuclear ambitions, demands a critical distance and contextualising, which Walker thought to omit. Blair may have a point when he discusses the destabilising effect of a Nuclear Iran on her middle eastern neighbours, but this is a documentary that also mentions, without thinking to connect the two events, that Blair is the Prime Minister that went into Iraq and in doing so provoked North Korea into building its bomb as well as Iran into stepping up its efforts to join them. Time and again we’re reminded, without being prompted, that nuclear disarmament is easy to talk about but it’s an ambition forever sabotaged by imbecilic governments and over zealous heads of state.
The failure of the 1986 Reagan/Gorbachev summit in Reykjavík is lamented, as it should be, but the explanation is reduced to a headline on an old magazine cover. If failure ever demanded further explanation then this, surely, was the time. The so-called “Star Wars” programme scuppered plans for the wholesale dismantling of ballistic missiles. The Strategic Defence Initiative, as it was formally known, was a technologically unfeasible plan to have orbiting satellites destroy incoming ICBMs in the upper atmosphere before they reached their targets. Reagan, the author of this science fiction premise, had instructed his military scientists to engineer it, whether the technology existed or not, thereby castrating the Soviet war machine. Yet when actually presented with the real world possibility of signing an article of faith that would see both the world’s nuclear arsenals destroyed, he refused to give up his dream, a deal breaker, despite the programme only existing to counter the very threat he was there to end in the first place.
Such monumental stupidity and a fine sense of the absurd rises to the surface in Walker’s film, even if the detail is buried. Try the simpleton who was prepared to trade weapons grade uranium for the chance to buy a Buick and other high end rides. The thought that a nuclear blast would fuse his atoms to those of the car seemed just; a Brundle style punishment for perverting nature.
Equally shocking is the story of Abdul Qadeer Khan, a Pakistani scientist turned holocaust entrepreneur, who peddled all the components required to manufacture a genocide to despotic regimes using a brochure that borrowed both the language and layout of an I.T company flogging web solutions. It beggars belief that anyone could be so breathtakingly irresponsible, not least when any ill-gotten gains would be unlikely to survive a nuclear war, but then Walker’s film is packed with such horror stories; tales of uranium stocks secured with nothing more than a padlock, Boris Yeltsin being one Vodka shot away from destroying human civilisation; why not just give the knowledge and experience required to build a bomb to a bunch of mental patients, plus the nuclear football and let them decide? The risk would be the same.
Walker’s strategy, employing gravel toned talking heads and reams of stock footage, is to stoke audience anxiety and spur us on to activism. No problem there, it’s a noble cause, but I was at a loss to understand why so much was made of abstractions and so little of real world experience. It’s one thing to talk about what would happen were a bomb to be detonated over London or New York, but why say so little about what did happen when Hiroshima and Nagasaki were attacked in 1945? In 99 minutes of diatribe, the suffering of the Japanese is barely touched upon, bar some dry data – 92% of Hiroshima’s buildings destroyed for example, the relative simplicity of the bomb. No mention of the incinerated populous or the experiences of survivors.
As these are the only two instances in human history where nuclear weapons were used on a civilian population, why not explore it further? One has to question the filmmaker’s motives in such a glaring omission, as this seems an obvious point of investigation. Did Walker consider the incident too removed from the present to be relevant? That would be ahistoric and senseless. Is it because the Japanese were the enemy and so we’re less likely to empathise? For some that may be true but it’s hardly in keeping with the humanistic tone of the piece. Regardless it feels like a misstep in exploring such an important topic, like making a film about the day of the Kennedy Assassination and not interviewing the witnesses.
Finally, the question prompted by the film, though neither asked nor answered, is why professionals have been so lax in acquiring nuclear material when amateurs seem to do it so easily? It’s a conundrum, not least because its key to the threat the film says exists. Did Bin Laden really want to kill four million Westerners or was that merely rhetoric? Did he even have the means to acquire or build such a weapon? Al-Qaeda’s existence as a bona fide terror organisation is one of many unquestioned assumptions in the film. Would a professional outfit risk all out nuclear war for a narrow, possibly local interest? The fact you’re reading this suggests not, though vigilance and affirmative action is really what Walker’s film is all about.
Ultimately Countdown to Zero is a useful springboard to a better understanding of global security. The issue may be more complicated than presented here but the thrust of the thesis is sound and maybe that’s enough.
Countdown to Zero is released in the U.K. today.
This article was first posted on June 24, 2011