Countdown To Zero is brought to you by Lawrence Bender, the same producer who brought you the Oscar winning Al Gore documentary An Inconvenient Truth. The two docs are companion pieces; nuclear winter, like global warming, is ecologically devastating. Blowing up the Earth is simply not good for the environment. Through Atomic Age archival footage, news clips and talking head interviews, Zero chillingly reminds us that the post-Cold War world remains on a nuclear hair trigger that endangers life on this planet as we know it.
In recounting the origins and history of the bomb, from Oppenheimer to Osama’s alleged efforts to obtain one, Zero revisits familiar documentary ground. Similar terrain was trod by 1983’s terrifying plutonium expose Dark Circle, co-directed by Judy Irving; Jim Heddle’s 1984 Strategic Trust: The Making of Nuclear Free Palau; and those revelatory heartbreakers set in America’s nuclear playground, the Marshall Islands: Dennis O’Rourke’s 1986 Half Life and Robert Stone’s 1988 Radio Bikini. But as far as this veteran journalist, who covered the nuclear free and independent Pacific movement from Tahiti to Kwajalein to Johnston Atoll to Palau is concerned this is old territory well worth returning to. Audiences can’t be reminded enough about the perils and horrors of nuclearism.
(For example, how many of us remembered that this was the 25th anniversary of the Western counter-offensive to destabilize Oceania’s anti-nuclear movement? These covert actions included the June 30, 1985 assassination of nuclear free Palau’s first president, followed by the July 10, 1985 sabotaging of Greenpeace’s Rainbow Warrior ship by French secret agents at anti-nuclear Auckland, New Zealand, before it could sail to Moruroa Atoll in French Polynesia to protest N-tests there, plus other black ops.)
While Zero, which is written and directed by Lucy Walker, is definitely in the hallowed tradition of the above 1980s docs, it is distinctly different and carves out its own path and vision. There’s little material on the Pacific Islands in Zero, but lots of footage I hadn’t seen before of atomic accidents, at places such as Greenland and Algeria. It may sound like the plot of a James Bond flick, but some nukes have actually gone missing. Jeepers creepers!!!
Perhaps even more terrifying is the prospect Zero explores of rogue states and/or terrorists such as Al Qaeda obtaining nukes. The nonfiction film takes us into the theft and sale of radioactive material in the former Soviet Union. Yikes! (Although in terms of rogue states acquiring nuclear weapons, as far as this writer is concerned the biggest rogue state of them all is the one which invented and used atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and then “tested” them on innocent islanders in the Marshalls, evaporating their isles off of the face of the Earth and inhumanly using them on indigenous nuclear lab rats. As an irradiated Marshallese woman puts it in, I think, Half Life: “Americans are very clever at doing stupid things.” One man’s rogue state is another’s pillar of democracy.)
Zero is also original in terms of its own, new material, which includes interviews with a number of establishment figures and others, such as: the outed CIA operative Valerie Plame; former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev (who recounts the failed denuclearization summit at Reykjavik, Iceland with Ronald Reagan); former Pakistani dictator Pervez Musharraf; ex-Prez Jimmy Carter and his National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brezinski (hey Jim and Zbig, as a “native” New Yorker, I just want to give you a big shout out for arming, training and funding Osama and his boys in Afghanistan, and “thank” you for helping to set the stage for 9/11!); and others.
After carefully setting up its scenario, Countdown To Zero is also innovative in trying to lay out a practical program for nuclear disarmament. But unlike the lead up, the denuclearization program is briefly spelled out, flying by swiftly. Nevertheless, Zero is well worth seeing.
And now, a word about our producer. The Bronx-born Bender is one of the most intriguing of La-La-Land’s liberals. In 2004 I attended a star-studded fundraiser for “Rock the Vote” at Bender’s posh Beverly Hills (or was it Bel Air? Or Brentwood? If you’ve seen one bourgeois burg you’ve seen them all.) home which I was covering for my Progressive Hollywood book. In addition to contributing to left-leaning causes and making progressive documentaries, including The Youngest Candidate, Bender has produced many of Quentin Tarantino’s blood soaked features, including Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction and Inglourious Basterds. (To be fair, he also directs more cerebral indies, such as The Chumscrubber.) I’ve always been curious about this. Does the producer of An Inconvenient Truth and Dusk to Dawn see this as a contradiction? Maybe Bender is for nuclear disarmament – he’s just not for gun control.
Anyway, here’s my “favorite” anti-nuclear gem that reveals the inhumanity and sheer insanity of the Atomic Era. In order to find out what radioactivity does to human beings, some time after Japan was nuked, a group of nuclear scientists subjected mentally disabled Americans to radiation. Of course, the nuclear guinea pigs developed adverse effects. Years later, when confronted with their horrors, the scientists tried to defend themselves by saying: “But we didn’t know what radiation would do to them.”
Ed Rampell is an L.A.-based film historian, critic, author, freelance writer and wag who wrote the Oct. 26, 2001 Tucson Weekly cover story“Tinseltown’s Tombstone, A Look at the Real and Reel Wyatt Earp.”