'Countdown to Zero' a fearful chronology of nuclear weapons

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in a scene from Lucy Walker's documentary "Countdown to Zero," a look at the atomic bomb's origins and the state of nuclear affairs today.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in a scene from Lucy Walker's documentary "Countdown to Zero," a look at the atomic bomb's origins and the state of nuclear affairs today.
Posted: July 30, 2010

'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, miscalculation, or by madness," said President John F. Kennedy in his 1961 address before the United Nations.

"The weapons of war must be abolished before they abolish us," concluded the president in his declamation for nuclear disarmament.

JFK's speech is the premise of Countdown to Zero, a doom-umentary enumerating too-close-for-comfort close calls that might have resulted in nuclear annihilation.

The film, moreover, speculates on the ease with which madmen - terrorists with a nugget of highly enriched uranium - can wipe out a city.

So, is Lucy Walker's screed a persuasive argument for getting rid of the nuclear arsenal or a cry of Chicken Little alarmism that the sky is falling?

In truth, this well-researched, anxiety-provoking film is both.

Highly polished, and populated with such eloquent talking heads as former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev and former CIA agent Valerie Plame, the film is Worst-Case Scenario: The Nuclear Edition.

Heard about the time in 1995 when a U.S.-Norway research rocket showed up on Russian radar, was mistaken for a nuclear warhead, and advisers urged Russian President Boris Yeltsin to retaliate?

"Fortunately, Yeltsin wasn't drunk," cracks a talking head.

Or about the time in 2007 when an American B-52 bomber flew across country with warheads on its wing that the pilots didn't know were there?

Or about A.Q. Khan, father of Pakistan's nuclear program, who sold his services (not to mention highly enriched uranium, which is easy to smuggle in kitty litter) to North Korea and Iran?

Although the movie intends to incite viewers to social action, it is just as likely to paralyze them with fear.


Contact movie critic Carrie Rickey at 215-854-5402 or crickey@phillynews.com. Read her blog, "Flickgrrl," at www.philly.com/philly/blogs/flickgrrl.

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