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It’s the End of the World as We Blow It

• July 19, 2010 • 8:47 AM

‘Countdown to Zero,’ a documentary history of nuclear weapons and possibility of radioactive terrorism, offers a cautionary tale for atomic powers.

The film Countdown to Zero might be one of the most frightening movies ever made, and it doesn’t feature a single vampire, zombie, biological mutant or alien slime thing. Just a bunch of talking heads discussing the possibility of nuclear terrorism, war or accident.

Scary. Very, very scary.

The film, which opens July 23 in New York and Washington, followed by a national rollout, is both a condensed history of nuclear weaponry and a sober analysis of contemporary nuclear issues. Produced by Lawrence Bender, the same man behind Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, the documentary’s agenda is in its title: to create the kind of global awareness that will eventually lead to the elimination of all nuclear weapons.
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Needless to say, that’s a tall order. There are currently nine nuclear states harboring a total of 23,000 devices, the overwhelming majority in the U.S. and Russia. That’s enough firepower to blow up the planet many times over, but the even more frightening aspect of Countdown to Zero is its delineation of the ways in which radioactive material is often carelessly guarded in countries like the Ukraine. Radioactive material can easily be smuggled across borders, sold to terrorists or rogue states and used to make small nuclear weapons or easy to construct dirty bombs.

“It is a question of when, not if,” terrorists get nuclear materials, says Valerie Plame Wilson, the famously outed CIA officer and one of those interviewed for the film. (Others in the film include Americans ranging from James Baker III to Jimmy Carter, past world leaders such as Tony Blair and Mikhail Gorbachev to past presidents of rogue-ish nuclear states like F.W. de Klerk and Pervez Musharraf.) “That’s why the message of this film is so important. You need to drain the swamp; the only way you can prevent nuclear weapons from falling into terrorist hands is to make sure no one has them.”

A key part of the problem here, as the film makes clear, is not political. The thought of nuclear warfare is so scary, “people don’t think about it,” says Wilson. “As individuals we feel very hopeless in the face of something like this.”

No kidding. The Hiroshima bomb, which is on the “weak” end of what’s out there today, killed tens of thousands instantly, destroyed 70,000 of the 76,000 buildings in the city and created a firestorm that spread out for nearly 5 miles. If those stats aren’t scary enough, the film notes that there are currently 1,700 tons of highly enriched uranium, a key element in bomb construction, floating around the world, enough to manufacture 50,000 weapons.

But wait. There’s more. A “dirty bomb,” a radioactive dispersal device that is easy to make, could, if set off in lower Manhattan, thoroughly contaminate the area, poisoning an untold number of people with radiation and causing literally trillions of dollars in damage.

“The psychological impact [of a dirty bomb] is nearly as devastating as a nuclear weapon,” says Plame Wilson, “if it’s in the right place at the right time, even though casualties might be minimal.”

That’s the bad news. But there is good news. The new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, or START, recently signed by Russia and the U.S., puts a cap on how many nuclear warheads, ballistic missiles and heavy bombers each country can deploy, and re-establishes an inspection regime that could lead to further reductions in their arsenals.

While conservative politicians like Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama have criticized the agreement, calling it “a naive and potentially risky strategic approach,” Wilson believes “they’re on the wrong side of history. You have to make a cogent argument as to why moving to zero is in our national interests, and I think it is. No one says we will do this unilaterally or overnight. I have enough idealism left to believe that Republicans are Americans first, and if they see an argument that this will be to our benefit, then they will sign off on it.”

In addition to arms reduction, Countdown to Zero also offers some strategies that might help relieve nuclear anxiety: Stop making highly enriched uranium, protect the amount that exists with better security, be alert for smugglers, and take weapons off high-alert status at military bases.

It’s all “a race against time,” says Wilson, “but when people realize what’s at stake, and things move ahead with the START treaty, that’s where I’m hopeful.”

ALSO OF NOTE:
Filmmaker Natalia Almada’s great-grandfather was Plutarco Elias Calles, a general during the Mexican Revolution, president of the country from 1924-28, and ruler through puppet presidents until he was exiled in 1936. In El General, which will be shown on PBS’ POV series July 20, Almada takes audiotapes her grandmother, Calles’ daughter, made about her life with the great man and uses them as a way to examine El Jefe Maximo’s (the top chief) legacy, and how it affects Mexico today.

The film, which won the Documentary Directing Award at last year’s Sundance Film Festival, bounces around from a short course on Mexican revolutionary history to riffs on the country’s ubiquitous street vendors and the cult of the Virgin of Guadalupe. It’s episodic, impressionistic and intimate, but never boring. If nothing else, it’s one more way to get acquainted with the history and customs of our troubled neighbor to the south.

•••

For 10 years, Thet Sambath has been interviewing former members of the Cambodian Khmer Rouge who participated in the mass murders of the 1970s, including Nuon Chea, the No. 2 man in the government run by the notorious Pol Pot (who died in 1998). The results can be seen in Enemies of the People, opening July 30 in New York, followed by a national release. The film features interviews with cadres who describe how they killed and why, and gives extensive face time to Chea, now in his 80s, who seems unrepentant in the face of the horrors his regime committed. (He is currently being charged with crimes against humanity by a U.N.-backed tribunal.)

Sambeth’s film, made with British filmmaker Rob Lemkin, is both startling and soporific. The firsthand accounts of mass murder are, for the most part, told dispassionately, yet they are utterly chilling. But the editing and pacing could be a lot punchier, and the accounts become repetitious. Still, as a historical document, one that can help us understand the madness that enveloped Cambodia from 1975-79, Enemies of the People is absolutely invaluable.

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Lewis Beale
Lewis Beale is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, Newsday and many other publications.

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