The slen­der­est of threads

Pasatiempo - - Moving Images -

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 or at www.glob­

Nu­clear re­ac­tion-ary: Mah­moud Ah­madine­jad

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