The slenderest of threads
Countdown to Zero, documentary, rated PG, 90 minutes, CCA Cinematheque, 4 chiles
Jonathan Richards I For The New Mexican
Today, every inhabitant of this planet must contemplate the day when this planet may no longer be habitable. 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.
— John F. Kennedy, at the United Nations, 1961
Are you ready to be terrified? Not slasher-movie scared but shaken down to the soles of your feet and the marrow of your bones? Have I got a movie for you!
Countdown to Zero may not be the most fun you’ll have at the movies this year, but it is absolutely mandatory viewing. It makes the case, with overwhelming persuasiveness and power, that we on this planet are living on borrowed time and that we would do well to use that time to rid the world of nuclear weapons before nuclear weapons rid the world of us. As things stand now, the question is not whether nuclear weapons will be used again, but when.
Writer-director Lucy Walker has marshaled an impressive lineup of experts from the fields of science, politics, espionage, and the military to lay out some home truths. She begins with the warning by President Kennedy cited above and goes on to walk us through the dangers faced by a world in
which terrorists getting their hands on quantities of highly enriched uranium and blowing up major cities is a proposition far from far-fetched.
There is less chance of nations resorting to nuclear warfare today because of the catastrophic retaliation that would ensue. But that doesn’t mean it couldn’t happen. As Kennedy warned, it can come about by accident, miscalculation, or madness. In 1995, it almost did.
On Jan. 25, 1995, American and Norwegian scientists studying the northern lights sent up a rocket off the coast of Norway. They had alerted all interested nations, including Russia. But someone in Russia forgot to pass the information along to the right parties. The launch had all the earmarks of a nuclear strike, and it triggered the automatic response of massive retaliation. Within minutes, President Boris Yeltsin was faced with the decision of whether to push the button. By all protocol, he should have. But he didn’t. As one expert in the film remarks drily, “Fortunately Yeltsin wasn’t drunk and didn’t believe it.” Close enough for you? Since 1945, when America developed the bomb and believed, with touching naiveté, that we could keep this secret for ourselves, the club of nuclear nations has mushroomed to nine, with North Korea the latest to join. Iran is thought to be in hot pursuit. As that country’s volatile president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, disarmingly puts the question, “If it’s a good thing, why shouldn’t we have it? If it’s bad, why do you have it?”
When Pakistan successfully tested a nuclear bomb in 1998, there was ecstatic dancing in the streets of Islamabad. With its unstable government, al-Qaida havens, and nuclear arsenal, Pakistan is now considered the most dangerous place on Earth.
Walker conducts a lot of man-in- the-street interviews to gauge the public’s awareness of the danger. Most of us, here and in other countries, don’t have much of a clue as to the numbers of weapons out there (about 23,000 today, down from a high of more than 60,000). But most ordinary citizens, like most responsible world leaders, understand the need to eliminate this potential doomsday weapon. It is hardly a partisan issue. Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev came agonizingly close to an agreement in their Reykjavik summit in 1986. Both men believed deeply in the elimination of nuclear weapons, but the talks ultimately foundered over Reagan’s commitment to the “Star Wars” missile defense system. And earlier this year, President Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev signed a nuclear disarmament treaty in Prague. In the film, Ambassador Richard Burt makes the point that “public opinion had a huge role to play in the process.”
The goal is zero nuclear weapons. And that’s not a simple task. Walker shows us how easy nuclear materials are to smuggle. Packed in kitty litter, for instance, enriched uranium is virtually impossible to detect. As Rolf Mowatt-Larssen, another former CIA operative, explains, “There are three ways to acquire a nuclear weapon: you can steal it, you can buy it, or you can build it.” All are accessible options to states and to stateless terrorists. We see an interview with Oleg Khintsagov, a petty Russian thief who acquired 100 grams of weaponsgrade uranium and tried to sell it to a radical Islamic group. “I like Lamborghinis,” he explained.
It’s pleasant not to think about these things. But ignorance, in this day and age, and at these stakes, is not an option. The film invites people to weigh in by signing a petition at www.takepart.com/zero or at www.globalzero.org.
Nuclear reaction-ary: Mahmoud Ahmadinejad