Countdown to Zero
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Until the Cold War ended 20 years ago, the world lived in constant fear of nuclear war. Families built bomb shelters in their yards, and schools did bomb drills. But then, once the Wall came down and the Soviet Union split up, it seemed that people forgot all about the threat of nuclear war.

But if you aren’t currently lying awake at night, worrying about the dangers posed by the mere existence of nuclear weapons, you probably will be after watching director Lucy Walker’s documentary, Countdown to Zero. It presents an eye-opening reminder that, although the Cold War is over, as long as the world’s approximately 23,000 nuclear weapons are still operational and accessible, the threat of nuclear destruction is still very real.

Through interviews with scientists, scholars, and politicians, Walker explores the current state of the world’s nuclear weapons: who has them, who wants them, how to get them. In a simple TV documentary style (which is understandable, since the project was partially funded by the History Channel), she presents the reality of the situation—and it’s not pretty.

Though the film is organized in a rather haphazard way, it seems to focus on a couple of main points. First, terrorist groups like Al-Qaeda are eager to get their hands on nuclear weapons—and, according to the experts, that’s not such a difficult task. In fact, the film lays out a step-by-step plan for smuggling highly enriched uranium or plutonium out of Russia and into the United States. Apparently, if you can get past the inept Russian guards, hide the materials in a crate full of kitty litter, and find a team of scientists to create a weapon using other readily available materials, you can have your own nuclear weapon for under $7 million.

The process seems over-simplified—and I’m not sure that it’s such a good idea to point out the weaknesses in the system to anyone who happens to watch this documentary. It seems about as wise as running an ad in the paper and publishing your credit card number. But the point is clear: it’s simply too easy for the Bad Guys to get control of nuclear weapons.

Still, it’s not just the terrorists who could cause massive nuclear destruction. From malfunctions to misunderstandings, Countdown to Zero details a number of incidents that could have ended in the accidental detonation of our own weapons—or those of our allies.

Like many other politically-charged documentaries, Countdown to Zero is one-sided and manipulative. It’s meant to make a point—not start a discussion. Yet, unlike many other politically-charged documentaries, it’s lacking the usual entertainment factor. For better or for worse, there aren’t any kooky animated sequences or outrageous talking heads to stir up controversy. Instead, it’s grim and rather dry—just a straightforward offering of the argument. And, really, it’s not even that much of an argument—since there probably aren’t many people who would try to argue that nuclear weapons aren’t dangerous.

But while Countdown to Zero isn’t particularly surprising—or entertaining—it’s still an eye-opening and informative reminder of a threat that’s often overlooked. So if you don’t already have enough to worry about, this doc is worth a look—though I recommend waiting for its inevitable History Channel premiere.

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