Skip to main content









Donation Heart Ribbon

Review: ‘Countdown to Zero’

The Nuclear Clock is Ticking

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in a scene from

Credit: Magnolia Pictures

Above: Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in a scene from "Countdown to Zero."

The Cold War is over and fears of the U.S. and Russia annihilating each other with nuclear weapons have pretty much become faded memories. But all that has been replaced with a whole new set of fears and anxieties, which Lucy Walker lays out in her documentary “Countdown to Zero” (opened July 30 at Landmark’s Ken Cinema).

Filmmaker Lucy Walker uses a speech by John F. Kennedy to lay the thesis foundation for her film. In a speech at the United Nations in 1961, Kennedy said, “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.”

Photo caption:

Photo credit: Magnolia Pictures

Mikhail Gorbachev is one of a number former heads of state interviewed in "Countdown to Zero."

So Walker takes Kennedy’s notion of accident, miscalculation, or madness as categories to explore in her documentary. In examining these potential dangers, she interviews a pretty impressive group of people. She speaks with former heads of state like Jimmy Carter, Tony Blair, Pervez Musharraf, and Mikhail Gorbachev as well as former CIA covert operation officer Valerie Plame Wilson, Princeton nuclear physicist Alexander Glaser, and authors Graham Allison, and Ahmed Rashid. The result is a compilation of information that is likely to make anyone feel anxious about the current state of affairs.

The film points out that more countries now than ever before that have nuclear weapons. Plus there are multiple terrorist organizations that are not interested in using nuclear weapons as some kind of political bartering tool but rather are willing to annihilate themselves in order to wreak havoc. The film details accidents that have already occurred (plutonium gone missing, nuclear weapons never recovered from crashes, freak occurrences, etc.), and plenty of madmen out there trying to get their hands on materials to make nuclear weapons. The information proves to be a mix of unnerving facts and absurd anecdotes (some rival the absurdity of Stanley Kubrick's "Dr. Strangelove"). At the end of the film you are likely to either throw your hands up in utter frustration as you embrace these contemporary fears, or feel inspired to try and actually go out and try to initiate change. If you feel motivated to take action, the film has conveniently set up a website to facilitate you.

Photo caption:

Photo credit: Magnolia Pictures

A scene from "Countdown to Zero."

Walker’s witnesses are all rational, articulate people who make their points persuasively about the dangers of nuclear weapons and the need for disarmament. They are persuasive in both their presentation of facts and in the anecdotes they recount that raise concerns about the "accidents" and "miscalculations."

“Countdown to Zero” (rated PG for thematic material, images of destruction and incidental smoking) is stating something that seems somewhat obvious and it may take a little too long to make its point and then hammer it home. Much of the information has been presented in the media in various ways before and is not new but Walker does a nice job of assembling it all together for maximum impact.

Please note that "Countdown to Zero" is likely to end its engagement on Thursday. So if you have an interest in seeing it in the theater, act quickly.

Companion viewing: “Testament,” “Kuroi ame (Black Rain),” “Atomic Café,” "Dr. Strangelove"

Want more KPBS news?
Find us on Twitter and Facebook, or subscribe to our newsletters.

To view PDF documents, Download Acrobat Reader.