A coolheaded yet still quite frightening nonfiction exploration of the inherent dangers of nuclear weapons and proliferation, Lucy Walker’s sobering Countdown to Zero makes a strong case, in non-polemical fashion, that political myopia is perhaps helping ink humankind’s eventual obituary.
The details make the thing. Much talking-head discussion centers around so-called loose nukes, but it’s also fascinating to hear former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev (above) reflect regretfully on the 1986 Reykjavik summit breakdown, which could have possibly eliminated all nuclear weapons, or at least ballistic missiles (something many saber-rattling Reaganites are now too confused with anti-Obama rage to remember).
And there are, of course, many horror stories of nuclear disaster barely averted, plenty not widely known. One that was reported on was a 1995 American missile test over Norway that tripped all the signal wires of a preemptive attack. The Russians were informed of it in advance, but somehow failed to pass the message along up the chain of command, resulting in Boris Yeltsin (thankfully not intoxicated… or perhaps thankfully so?) being awoken in the middle of the night and given only a couple minutes to decide how to respond. If he’d followed established governmental protocol, he would have launched nuclear missiles at a dozen American cities. With so many threats in the world, it seems insane to continue to exist in a state of alert so open to malfunction, corruption and error. And yet if there’s anything that human history has taught us, it’s that we typically don’t truly learn a lesson until it’s we’ve paid disastrous consequences. (Magnolia, PG, 90 minutes)