Movies: The Nuclear Option


Lucy Walker has made a horror film about the slaughter and wreckage of a nuclear attack. Countdown to Zero has all the essential flourishes of the genre: explosions, screaming crowds, buildings falling to ash. That the film is a documentary—an awfully persuasive one, at that—makes it all the creepier.

Walker’s film is a kind of cousin to An Inconvenient Truth. Both documentaries aim to focus public attention on an overlooked global crisis. Both were produced by Lawrence Bender. And where the earlier film centered on a speech by Al Gore, Walker organizes hers around one by John F. Kennedy. In a 1961 address to the United Nations, he said that “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.” Aided by academics, former military officials, and talking heads such as Valerie Plame Wilson, the outed CIA agent and nonproliferation expert, Walker explores JFK’s three possibilities in turn. The result is a kind of Choose-Your-Own-Obliteration story.

These days, “madness” seems the shortest route to the end of civilization. Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups have made no secret of their desire for nuclear weapons. But will they get one? Considering how much uranium is sitting around the former Soviet Union, it seems all too possible. Delivery wouldn’t be much of a problem, either. In fast-forward, Walker shows a container ship being unloaded in an American port. When you can hide a Manhattan-flattening amount of uranium in a shoebox, and encase it in enough lead to all but negate its radioactive signature, how can we be sure fissile material isn’t slipping through amid all that commotion? As one of Walker’s experts wryly puts it, a terrorist could probably sneak it past border security in a bale of marijuana.

We like to think that our nuclear arsenal is in safe hands, that an accident couldn’t lead to mass devastation. But the film shows in unnerving detail that the people who handle nuclear weapons are no exception to the human tendency to be highly, highly fallible. Three years ago, a B-52 accidentally toted six nuclear-tipped missiles from North Dakota to Louisiana; even the pilots didn’t know what they were carrying. That plane didn’t crash, but others carrying nuclear weapons have. In fact, Walker’s survey of 60 years of mishaps leaves the impression that we’ve left nukes scattered around the planet like coins in your sofa. Her experts tell us time and again that only luck or the grace of God saved us from disaster.

Nowhere have we been luckier, it seems, than in the realm of miscalculation. To take the most colorful example of many: in 1995, the Russian military interpreted a routine American rocket launch to be the start of a nuclear exchange. Protocol dictated that the Russian president should begin an immediate counterattack on the United States. Only the wisdom and prudence of Boris Yeltsin—Boris Yeltsin!—halted the vaporization of several American cities.

At moments like this, Walker’s film takes an unexpected and probably unintentional step toward comedy. I don’t mean it’s funny—no subject is more serious than this one—only that the brain gets a little giddy after contemplating how thin our escapes have been, and what it means to live in a world where an object the size of a grapefruit could wipe out an island the size of Manhattan. (The film packs an extra punch if you see it in New York—trust me.) The mix of fecklessness, misunderstanding, and desire to inflict harm that’s on display here brings to mind the dark satire of Dr. Strangelove. But then one of the things we learn here is that Stanley Kubrick’s film got it all wrong. A veteran who once manned a nuclear-missile silo points out that you don’t need generals to start a war—a couple of lieutenants would suffice.

The film argues that in a world where all these terrible things have happened, or could happen, or both—and I haven’t even mentioned the sinister Pakistani weapons dealer/national hero A. Q. Khan—the only safe future for humanity is one without nuclear weapons. As it happens, another new documentary makes a similar case. Nuclear Tipping Point is an hourlong film written and directed by Ben Goddard, the issue-advocacy maven best known for the “Harry and Louise” ads. This treatment of our imminent fiery demise doesn’t have the reach or the flash of Walker’s, with its crisp graphics, Radiohead music, and poignant views of cities at night. With the exception of a couple of ill-advised dramatic re-creations, Goddard makes his case largely with four very imposing talking heads.

Nuclear Tipping Point stars (if that’s the word) the quartet of foreign-policy graybeards whose 2007 Wall Street Journal editorial helped galvanize the disarmament effort. In solo interviews, against a sober black backdrop, George Shultz, Henry Kissinger, Sam Nunn, and William Perry take turns making the case for a nuclear-free world. For the most part, I found Walker’s film more terrifying, and therefore more effective. On one point, though, Goddard’s film offers the definitive treatment: the doomsday hypothetical of what happens in the hours after an American city is destroyed.

First, they seem to agree, terrorists would claim that there are more bombs in other cities, and make exorbitant demands. Then civil liberties would collapse, and the social order would go with it. “You can imagine people fleeing from the cities—the social and economic structure of the U.S. collapsing under that,” says Perry, who was secretary of defense in the Clinton administration. From there it’s a quick step to anarchy. Dressed in gray and black, lit like the subject of a portrait by the Dutch masters, Kissinger offers a vision of a kind of nihilism turned loose on the world. If a government can’t protect against one of its cities being destroyed, he asks, “What’s the use of any government?” It’s not hard finding the motivation to write your congressman after that.

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