PARK CITY, Utah (Hollywood Reporter) - A doomsday doc suggesting that climate change and eco-degradation aren’t going to matter much if we blow up the planet first, “Countdown to Zero” reminds viewers of old fears most people have put on a back burner. Convincingly argued and extremely polished, the Sundance festival selection has theatrical potential for audiences whose reservoir of worry about humanity’s future hasn’t already run dry.
Taking cues from a famous JFK speech, the documentary studies three ways — accident, miscalculation, and madness — in which nuclear weapons might be detonated. Director Lucy Walker (also bringing the lighter-hearted “Waste Land” to Sundance this year) makes the odds look pretty bad on all three fronts, especially when a scientist points out that, even in terms of unlikely scenarios, “low-probability events happen all the time.”
Some possibilities seem anything but low-probability, though: Walker’s account of the insecurity of nuclear materials in Russia is absolutely chilling, with so many low-level numbskulls gaining access to highly enriched uranium (HEU) that it’s a marvel that some intelligent villain hasn’t yet gathered enough to use.
Experts like Valerie Plame and Princeton nuclear scientists discuss the plans that unfriendly powers have to build, buy or steal a bomb, and Walker efficiently gets viewers up to speed on the current state of the global arsenal. (There are around 23,000 operational weapons on the planet.) She points out the near-worthlessness of much-vaunted radiation detectors at shipping docks, which give false-positive readings for everything from CRTs to kitty litter and could easily be bypassed by a few grapefruit-size chunks of HEU.
With its constant stream of images of the world’s great cities — and “five-mile” circles showing the area of maximum devastation — the film never lets us forget the specifics of a hypothetical nuclear detonation. Walker goes overboard only near the end, when she uses footage of happy Times Square visitors to needlessly emphasize the innocent lives a bomb would destroy.
Ending on a de rigueur positive note, Walker reveals that the film’s title refers not only to the doomsday clock but to the push to dismantle every nuke in the world. It’s going to take more than texting a protest to the number given in the film’s closing titles, but “Countdown” makes the cause seem as urgent as ever.