The nuclear abolition documentary, Countdown to Zero, opened today in New York and D.C. amid positive reviews, and a major promo push featuring one of its expert witnesses and narrators, Valerie Plame Wilson. A rollout starts next week across the U.S. It's produced by Lawrence Bender (who earlier gave us both Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth and Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds).
Last night I caught up with Plame Wilson via my red phone. She was wrapping up her tour in Los Angeles, not far from the home she shares with husband Joe Wilson and their twins in Santa Fe. Earlier in the day came news that the film Fair Game, based on her memoir and directed by Doug Liman, will be released on November 5 (and we've covered this film a lot here, too). It stars Naomi Watts and Sean Penn and received a mixed response at Cannes not long ago.
Countdown to Zero focuses on half a dozen different reasons to be scared out of our wits about nukes, ranging from terrorists getting their hands on the raw materials or a finished bomb to an accidental launch or one plotted by rogue generals (perhaps even junior officers down in the silos).
Interviewees range from policy wonks to Mikhail Gorbachev, interspersed with zingy graphics and music as previously displayed in Inconvenient Truth. Wilson appears mainly in the first half of the film, testifying to the terrorist threat and proliferation, but I asked her which of the threats worried her the most.
"I wouldn't want to rank them," she replied. While her area of expertise was the terrorism/proliferation "nexus," she finds all of the other threats troubling: "As we saw from the BP oil spill, low-probability events are still possible." So, the "premise of the film is to drain the swamp" of nuclear weapons. "The only rational way to proceed is toward zero," she declares.
"With the CIA I saw damn close how hard terrorists are working to get nuclear weapons -- and that is damn scary. But we don't want to scare people into inaction. The whole point of the film is to get people to talk about this issue. "
A baffling NPR review of the film found its call to action a waste of time since lobbyists, protesters and petition signers in the U.S. won't have any effect in, say, Iran or North Korea. This, of course, misses the point of the film: that the existence of 23,000 nuclear warheads in this world, even after the end of the Cold War, provides an almost endless amount of nuclear material that can acquired by the Iranians and North Koreans, not to mention al Qaeda and others.
"No one is suggesting that North Korea and Iran will fall right into line," she affirmed. "I'd love to have showings of this in downtown Tehran but that's not likely to happen." Still, the film, she says, presents "well thought out, planned, orchestrated steps to get to zero. Reagan was right: trust but verify. And you need to build international consensus. This isn't going to happen on Tuesday but needs to start now."
I asked Plame Wilson when the notion of nuclear abolition came to her. "I have evolved in my thinking," she revealed. "At the CIA I was working to keep nuclear weapons out of the hands of bad guys. What I learned is that what that does, frankly, is just delay it. At the CIA I felt I'd be happily out of a job if we moved to zero."
She laughed heartily, adding, "So when I was approached about this film I jumped at this. If I can use my voice that is important. This film allows me to continue to work on an issue I really care about."
Even so, I wondered if she felt she would be accomplishing more if she had not been outed and lost her CIA post. "Yes, I wish I was still working overseas on this issue, covert -- I had the best job going," she confirmed, poignantly. "So, yeah, working on the film is a substitute, but I feel really lucky to be part of it.
"It's a special moment now, and we have special momentum: We have a president who has called for abolition, we have signed START, he convened leaders of world to move forward on this."
I told her that I thought one flaw in the film was that among all of the threats it raises it doesn't even mention the deliberate use of nuclear weapons by a country with a "first-use" policy -- such as the United States. Yes, we have never renounced the option of using the bomb first (for example, to prevent another nation from going nuclear). One reason I've written so much about the atomic bombing of Japan is this: Polls show that most Americans still back that deadly "first-use" back then, so how easily will it be to convince them that the U.S. must never use them again under any circumstance?
Plame Wilson said it was the director Lucy Walker's choice to pick the threats explored in the film. But she said, "Most people are still working off a Cold War paradigm. Hello -- the world has changed in profound ways. The chance of the U.S, and Russia going to war is nil, but proliferation has made us less safe. To me it's so evident."
That's why she's working tirelessly on behalf of the film and its attempt to inspire a mass movement around its message. After appearing at Cannes, Plame poked fun at herself by saying she hoped someone would design an "action figure" based on her -- "that's what I want." Not needed: She's become a different kind of action figure, on her own.
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Greg Mitchell writes the Media Fix blog at The Nation. He is the former editor of Nuclear Times and has written extensively on The Bomb, including the book he authored with Robert Jay Lifton, Hiroshima in America. Twitter @GregMtich
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