Wooooo-ooooo-ooooooh! We’re all going to die! Oh, not again! I lived the first 25 years of my life in the shadow of the neutron bomb. I was quite glad when the Cold War ended. And now, according to this dramatic but seemingly sensible new feature-length documentary Countdown To Zero, I’m living in the shadow of either a dirty bomb set off by terrorists, or a neutron bomb that was fired off by accident. It’s a compelling film, directed by Lucy Walker and produced by Laurence Bender, which gets a limited cinematic release on June 21 but will presumably turn up on TV or DVD pretty sharpish afterwards. All the details are on the film’s official website, but June 21 has been chosen as it’s Demand Zero Day, which is basically about reducing the world’s nuclear weapons to zero (you can sign a petition, get involved, that sort of thing).
The world certainly looks like a dangerous place in the film. Even though bin Laden’s death and the Arab Spring have happened since it was made and altered the landscape for good or ill, the fact remains, there are nuclear weapons everywhere, and nuclear material is sitting around waiting to be turned into weapons: the technology is simple, the will is certainly there among the world’s most dispossessed and pissed off, and, as the film shows, detection of this stuff is woefully inadequate. (Bury a piece of uranium inside some cat litter and you can just post it to America, pretty much, and no red lights will go off at any port.)
Unlike a lot of the liberal scare-docs we’ve seen about ecological armageddon and social ills, Countdown To Zero is not gimmicky. Gary Oldman provides the voice of Robert Oppenheimer at the beginning, but other than that, we are not sold the facts by an august Hollywood star to help the medicine go down. (Much of the narration comes from an interview with Valerie Plame, in fact.) The graphics and animation are minimal and low-key. When a bomb “the size of a tennis ball” is mentioned during the Manhattan Project section, we see a tennis ball in mid-air; likewise when grapefruit are used to demonstrate relative size, we see grapefruits. I’m fine with this. Google Maps are used to show various ripples from imagined nuclear devices dropped in the centres of various big cities. A world map is used to show how many nuclear states there are in the world.
I wasn’t sure how useful the endless vox pops were. Asking people in assorted cities how many nukes they think are in the world merely demonstrates that guesses range from low to high. But that’s how the “real people” are employed in Countdown To Zero: as guessers. I suppose it shows how ill-informed we all are, but not after seeing this. Take your pick where the nuclear holocaust will come from: Iran, North Korea, Pakistan … apparently Boris Yeltsin averted a Russian-American showdown as recently as 1995 when a non-nuclear rocket was misidentified by the Soviets’ radar and he chose to ignore it in that brief window of indecision a world leader gets.
I like a horror film occasionally, and this is one, but Bender and Walker must be applauded for their calm tone (the same production company made An Inconvenient Truth), and for the sheer weight of their interviewees: Gorbachev, McNamara, Musharraf, Carter, de Clerk and even Tony Blair. (How unpleasant to see his face, but hey, well done for stirring up global jihad when you were in office and making the world a less safe place in light of all this, eh?) It’s an American film, and has an American bias, but it does not shirk American responsibility – they really did start all this, technologically and politically, and it was their Communist paranoia that fanned the flames of escalation for 40 years. (It’s enlightening to remember that de Klerk put a stop to South Africa’s nuclear programme in 1990 and opted out of the nuclear club with full disclosure and the handing over of all their working to the AEC. Difficult to swallow down that bile and credit him with anything, but there it is. Mind you, Apartheid South Africa had only developed the weapons programme in the first place due to its increasing isolation in the world.)
I hate nuclear weapons. They ruined what might have been an idyllic childhood, scaring the constant shit out of all of us who saw things like Threads, The Day After, On The Beach, Twilight’s Last Gleaming, Dr Strangelove, Fail-Safe, Protect and Survive, or even clips of The War Game. The truth is, no nuke has been fired or dropped in anger since the US killed around 200,000 citizens of Japan in 1945, but during the 1980s, particularly, the hand on the Doomsday Clock ticked ever closer to midnight, and it informed so much of how we thought, what we did, and what the music sounded like. Two Tribes was a number one pop record about America and Russia going to war. A pop record! What are number one pop records about now? Oh yeah, nothing.
Anyway, the good thing about living in London, which I didn’t for the early part of my teenage years, is that it would all be over very quickly. Don’t have nightmares, but do watch this film if you get the chance on June 21.