It’s that unlikely bizarre interaction, where one person interacts with another in a way that wasn’t anticipated or one backup system interacts with another in a way you haven’t anticipated, so you can’t plan around it.
—Scott Sagan, Co-director of Stanford’s Center for International Security and Cooperation
“Somebody’s gonna make a mistake one day and we’re all gonna suffer for it.” Near the start of Countdown to Zero, a series of on-the-street interviews suggest that few people give much thought to nuclear weapons. Interviewees from around the world—including London, Tokyo, Paris, and New York—respond to the question, “Do you worry about nuclear war?” Several individuals say they don’t (“It’s never been something I’ve had to think about in my everyday life,” or again, “It’s too ridiculous even to think about it”). After one older man emphatically contradicts this seeming consensus (“Isn’t everybody worried about nuclear war? That’s a stupid question”), the sequence ends with expressions of helplessness: “What can you do about it? Nothing.” That dreadful mistake is only a button-push away.
This idea, that nuclear weapons are a done deal, is surely scary. But it’s this idea that Lucy Walker’s documentary means to scare out of you.
Countdown to Zero uses a familiar mix of expert talking heads and artful illustrations to make an urgent argument. It begins with a look back at Oppenheimer and the Manhattan Project. While its rehearses the usual Oppenheimer reference to the Bhagavad Gita (when Vishnu says, “I am become death, destroyer of worlds”), the film conjures more mundane images as well. A narrator recalls that Enrico Fermi looked out on Manhattan from an office window, cupped his hands to approximate the size of a tennis ball, cautioning that “a little bomb like that” could make it “all disappear.” The film cuts from Fermi’s photo to tennis balls, floating in abstract space, suddenly ominous.
This bit of drama enhances John Kennedy’s metaphor, spoken during a 1961 speech to the United Nations and here superimposed as recurring text, “the nuclear sword of Damocles” made inexorably more daunting by its association with today’s sorts of terrorism. Surveillance video footage shows urban sites recently subjected to attacks with homemade explosives, in Madrid, Riyadh, Mumbai, and Oklahoma City. Valerie Plame Wilson—the former secret CIA operative who now who needs no introduction—voices the worry these shots evoke: “Al-Qaeda is determined to acquire nuclear weapons.” The reasons are both obvious and specific. “The objective of al-Qaeda is to kill four million Americans,” reports Graham Allison, author of Nuclear Terrorism, a number based on a calculation of victims the U.S has killed over decades of invading and interfering. A vigorous-seeming Osama Bin Laden appears under Allison’s conclusion that this target number means to “balance scales.”
Al-Qaeda is only one example of forces seeking redress. The film is not interested in detailed histories or motivations (though one mechanic caught dealing weapons materials explains, armed guards standing behind him, “Terrorists all over the world were created by Americans. They created bin Laden, they trained the Taliban in the Scottish mountains”). Instead, it focuses on the risks that have resulted from decades of short-sighted, and self-interested behaviors.
Even as the documentary underscores the fear of terrorists purchasing or assembling nuclear weapons components (including apparently easily stolen and smuggled quantities of highly enhanced uranium, or HEU), Tony Blair pops up briefly to articulate another concern, the one that kept him “up at night,” namely, nuclear proliferation among nations. The film uses a colorful map to show those states who have actual weapons and when they acquired them, following the first U.S. test in 1945. A sequence of archival images shows how each population celebrated the news of their triumphs, from China and North Korea to India and Pakistan. Pervez Musharraf explains, “It is the first time we’ve achieved something which places us in the ranks of very, very few countries of the world: we were proud of our scientists, we were proud of our capabilities, we were proud of our strength.”
While Musharraf reappears later as one of multiple individuals declaring that the best number of nuclear weapons in the world is “none,” his assertion here lays out why nations seek membership in the so-called “nuclear club.” Countdown to Zero underlines the dangers posed by (potentially) unfriendly governments and rogue elements with such capabilities by turning to the most frequently noted threat of late, Iran. A TV interview with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has him insisting, “What right do you have to deprive us? If it’s a good thing, then we should have it too… If it’s bad, why do you have it?” While the moral simplification in this assessment is maddening—and his grin unnerving—the Iranian president here makes the usual argument for nuclear weapons, that they’re deterrents. If the rationale for maintaining an arsenal is self-defense (as the U.S. and its allies argue), those nations without one also want to feel “secure.”
This sort of thinking was amplified, says Mike Chinoy (who wrote Meltdown), when Iran took a particular lesson from the U.S. invasion of Iraq. The Iranians see that “Saddam was ousted because he didn’t have a nuclear bomb,” Chinoy notes, and want to avoid that fate. Similarly, he adds, North Korea sees its weapons as a way to “be taken seriously by the United States and all the other big players in the neighborhood.”
As such language suggests, thinking and posturing around nuclear weapons have long been strategic and too abstract, described as moving game board pieces and measuring strength by numbers so large that they eventually lose meaning. It’s a great thing that the U.S. and Russia—who together hold some 96% of all the world’s nuclear weapons—have reduced their arsenals by nearly half, but 23,355 still exist, officially. The obvious question, the one asked throughout and after the cold war, is, how many nuclear weapons does it take to destroy an enemy, or the world, for that matter? In the hands of Hamas or al-Qaeda, just one weapon becomes an existential threat to someone.
This specter of inevitability brings the film back around to its initial point, the potential for mistakes. As Scott Sagan puts it, even apart from deliberate threats, the “unintentional threat, by accident by error or by misjudgment” is almost worse to contemplate. Bruce Blair, a former launch officer for minuteman missiles and now president of the World Security Institute, emphasizes the alarming lack of time in which a world-flattening decision must be made, as well as the routine learned by the designated launchers. “The life of a launch officer is really kind of Pavlovian,” he says over footage from Frederick Wiseman’s 1987 film, Missile.
Setting such sober documentary imagery alongside General Ripper from Dr. Strangelove (“Looks like we’re in a shooting war!”), Countdown to Zero makes clear that fact and fiction can be hard to parse—perhaps especially when their differences seem most obvious. And so, the film, like so many activist documentaries of late, exhorts viewers to act, to feel less scared or at least momentarily empowered—by texting.