A closing montage in the essential 1982 found footage essay “The Atomic Cafe” shows a series of 1960s-era individuals engaging in duck-and-cover antics in anticipation of a nuclear blast. Given the retro black-and-white feel, the visual equation amounts to a meditation on the past, with no indication of the same paranoia being present in modern times. Lucy Walker’s sober investigative documentary “Countdown to Zero” rectifies that assumption as an up-to-the-minute survey loaded with dread.
In the ever-expanding canon of global activism cinema, “Countdown” lies somewhere between the charts-and-graphs approach of “An Inconvenient Truth” and the candid talking heads of Charles Ferguson’s Iraq war indictment, “No End in Sight.” Tracking the current dangers of nuclear proliferation in the post-Cold War era, Walker reveals the extent to which countries around the world either possess a healthy supply of nuclear weapons or intend to track them down (Hellooo, Iran!). The movie functions less as an expose than a wake-up call: Walker outlines, in layman’s terms, the process that any country must go through to obtain a nuke, thus making it look pretty simple. As the title suggests, the filmmaker depicts the current global climate as more vulnerable to a grisly atomic fate than any decade in the second half of the twentieth century.
Thankfully, Walker rarely depends on superficial fear-mongering to deliver the message. Her tactics for generating tension are mainly empirical: She reveals numerous incidents of enriched uranium theft around the world (crimes with major destructive potential that frequently go unnoticed), and allows a handful of experts (including ex-CIA agent Valerie Plame Wilson) to serve as voices of authority. The arrangement of talking heads and animated maps competently demystify the story, although the director appears content to merely outline the situation rather than dig very deep into it. The closing call to action, an end credit accompanied by a URL, feels like a coup: Nowhere in the movie do we see the activism that Walker intends to support.
Nevertheless, the narrative thread of “Countdown” works to a great degree as a suspense movie — but the climax exists not onscreen but in our collective fears. Expert editing and an eerie score by Peter Golub (“Frozen River”) routinely create palpable discomfort, deconstructing the public’s complacency by lingering on its potential for self-obliteration. Veteran commanders from around the world recall near-fatal incidents when miscommunication led countries to come horrifically close to ordering nuclear attacks. (The parallels to “Dr. Strangelove” do not go unnoticed.)
Despite its verbal nature, “Countdown” has its fair share of cinematic devices. Walker repeatedly invokes a famous JFK bit about the “nuclear sword of Damocles,” printing the quote on the screen and suggestively isolating the words “accident,” “miscalculation” and “madness,” an unholy trinity of apocalyptic threats. But Walker also offsets her movie’s propagandistic qualities with a humanitarian bent. Man-on-the-street interviews illustrate relative ignorance about the nuclear weapons trade, in addition to an apparent universal sense that all such weapons should be obliterated. The mind of the individual, it seems, has been foiled by power-hungry national mindsets.
Many of Walker’s high-profile sources hit a somber note: Mikhail Gorbachev laments the failure of his Summit Meetings with Ronald Regan, while Jimmy Carter recalls the vanity of his fight against nuclear armaments during his presidency. No matter Walker’s intentions, her movie can’t avoid reflecting their depressing sense of helplessness.