“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, or miscalculation, or by madness.” This JFK quote serves as the thesis statement of Lucy Walker's essay-like Countdown to Zero, a meat-and-potatoes dissertation on the possibility of nuclear catastrophe that our planet continues to face some thirty years after the Cold War.
If Kennedy's quotation is Walker's thesis statement, then the words “accident”, “miscalculation”, and “madness” are her three body paragraphs, to each of which she draws special attention. “Madness” refers to the threat of nuclear attacks from America-hating radicals, and it receives a lengthy treatment right from the start of the film, describing the ease with which terrorists could acquire the parts for and build a nuclear weapon. “Accident” obviously discusses past instances and future possibilities for unforeseen malfunctions and unintentional detonation of nuclear arms. And “miscalculation” describes how the slightest thing – ie: a weather satellite or a flock of geese – could be misconstrued by trigger-happy national leaders as an attack, forcing hasty retaliation and a swift nuclear Armageddon.
Walker's use of the Kennedy quote is a wise framing device that clearly defines the scope of her topic, however, the material presented within each of her three subheadings is not always organized ideally. For instance, even when discussing the risks of “accident” and “miscalculation”, one can't help but sense the focus of her argument slipping back to “madness”, possibly to instill nightmares in terrorist-fearing Americans. Indeed, a great deal of her methods involve scare tactics, some of which become redundant, but some of which are quite effective, such as the ominous superimposition of an atomic bomb's concentric ranges of destruction over top of the maps of densely populated cities. The motif recurs throughout the movie before finally culminating in the film's best sequence; a clinical breakdown – narrated by multiple experts whose audio tracks are cleverly mixed and overlapped – of the immediate and long-term effects of a (hypothetical) nuclear explosion at Times Square, New York City (taking place after the New Year's Eve countdown for added effect).
Walker's layout may have needed a tad more refinement, but her material is compelling nonetheless, indicating a great deal of research and citation of credible sources. She even secured testimony from former political bigwigs such as Tony Blair, Robert McNamara, Jimmy Carter, and Mikhail Gorbachev. She must also be commended for not allowing her film at any point to become stiff or sleep-inducing, as do some documentaries that take such an academic approach.
Normally, with such serious subject matter and professional execution, I wouldn't hesitate to chalk up Countdown to Zero as a strong Oscar contender, but this year's Best Documentary race is already a hotly contested one. One never knows how this branch is going to vote anyway. Still, if they see fit to give it the nomination it clearly deserves, I wouldn't be the least bit surprised.
*** out of ****
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