Countdown to Zero

When the Academy’s documentary branch released its short list for Best Documentary contenders in 2010, a few titles were surprisingly omitted. Catfish fascinated many, but its questionable veracity likely prevented some members from wholly embracing it. Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work was a startlingly honest look at fame and one woman’s determination to keep it, but show biz docs are often regarded as light for the Academy’s tastes. So perhaps the most surprising omission was Countdown to Zero, director Lucy Walker’s look at the dangers of nuclear weapons in the age of the War on Terror. There’s no way you could call it light. In fact, it’s scarier than most horror films. And it was selected for Cannes last May, where it received relatively good buzz. So what happened? Well, it’s just not all that compelling.

The film’s thesis is taken directly from a famous John F. Kennedy quote: “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. The weapons of war must be abolished before they abolish us.” It goes on to explain, in detail, how the remnants of the Cold War arms race pose the greatest threat to mankind in our history. The reason for the disaster is irrelevant. In fact, we’ve come very close to such an incident as a result of accident, miscalculation, AND madness.

Walker’s position is clear: She thinks nuclear weapons serve no decent purpose and should be disposed of completely. It’s not an unfamiliar belief, and it’s something that’s hard to argue with. But she doesn’t present this belief in a cinematic way. There’s no charm and little excitement. It’s just a series of (admittedly impressive) interviews interspersed with some dry old footage.

In a weak documentary year, Countdown to Zero might not seem so dull. But we’ve seen tough subjects like this tackled with real zeal too many times this year to let this lackluster film slide. It makes its points, but few really stick. It makes you scared but doesn’t inspire you to act. In addition to journalism, I also studied international relations in college, so this film should’ve landed right in my wheel house. It’s just not all that special. Consider it the first truly disappointing doc I’ve seen from 2010.

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