Countdown to Zero

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Countdown to Zero

For those of us who remember having to endure The Day After in social-studies class, followed by cheery discussions of nuclear winter, Countdown to Zero will cast a frightening, punishing spell. The nightmare of instant annihilation doesn’t play so well to today’s youth, more spooked by planes. Still, Lucy Walker’s artful—if borderline alarmist—documentary brings the issue into penetrating focus, making a strong case for renewed global vigilance. (Her producers include An Inconvenient Truth’s Lawrence Bender.) Exceedingly well researched, Countdown trips down a darkly surreal history of near mistakes: an unexploded A-bomb dropping on a South Carolina suburb; a moment in 1995 when Boris Yeltsin pretty much saved the planet by ignoring a blip on a screen.

But the most impressive material here would make for a nail-biting James Bond film (and probably already has): the hundreds of loosely guarded silos in the former Soviet Union. Their enriched plutonium seems destined for a terrorist’s briefcase; as discussed by mesmerizing ex--CIA agent Valerie Plame Wilson (can such a conspicuous woman have ever worked undercover?) and a host of former world leaders, this scenario is not merely “possible,” or even probable, but eventual. Walker integrates stranger-on-the-street testimony to further her general vibe of ignorance, thus pinpointing the true target of an agitated doc—our own blithe apathy.—Joshua Rothkopf

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