We’re all going to die in a fiery nuclear apocalypse in which we’ll either be vaporised instantly, blown apart by the explosion, impaled by flying hundred-mile-an -hour debris, set on fire, suffocated as all the oxygen’s burned out of the immediate atmosphere or simply suffer a slow lingering death at the hands of radiation poisoning. That’s the cheery conclusion of Countdown To Zero, a terrifying documentary which shows how close we’ve come to extinction several times and that a calamitous nuclear disaster is all but inevitable.
It’s structured around Kennedy’s 1961 address to the UN in which he stated “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 quickly assembles an impressive cast of talking heads, from professors to former presidents (Carter, Blair, Gorbachev), to former CIA operatives. Together they reveal the size of the current world stockpile of nuclear weaponry (23,000 warheads) and how easy it would be for a nuclear missile to be bought, stolen or made.
Apparently a nuclear device wouldn’t be very hard to assemble once the fissile material has been obtained (a Harvard professor says that he sometimes sets it as a test for students which most of them pass).
Getting the fissionable material is the hard part and apparently that’s not even that difficult. One official remarks that in Georgia, “potatoes were guarded better” – what kind of a world is it where getting a bag of chips is harder than facilitating the end of the world?
If you can’t steal it, you could easily make it as the uranium needed is more plentiful on earth than tin and all it takes is a centrifuge to skim off the right isotope. It’s only a matter of time before a nuke is in the hands of a raving fundamentalist lunatic with a bad attitude (a still of Ahmadinejad with dozens of centrifuges behind him is a particularly unsettling image).
Even more terrifying is the revelation that we’ve come within a hair’s breadth of being annihilated several times in the past merely by accident. In 1995 Russian officials marched into Yeltzin’s office with the red button and strike codes when a Norwegian test rocket was mistaken for an American attack. Soviet protocol demanded that he launched a retaliatory strike immediately but fortunately he “wasn’t drunk” and refused to believe the reports.
But while the archive footage (particularly Oppenheimer tearfully recounting the creation of the nuclear bomb) and the professional interviews offer compelling arguments for disarmament, there’s the irritating inclusion of vox pops from the public. Predictably, those asked know very little and spout ill-informed opinions but beyond demonstrating the public’s widespread ignorance, what is this meant to achieve? Are they really like to say that they’re in favour of a nuclear war?
Still, it’s an effectively terrifying film and one which advances the cause for a safer world, one free from the threat of nuclear holocaust and one in which the theme tune to Terminator 2 doesn’t automatically start playing in your head once you’ve left the cinema.