I still marvel at the simplicity and effectiveness of Al Gore and Davis Guggenheim's An Inconvenient Truth as a model of a documentary that manages to lecture the audience, educate it and scare it silly - and still be cinematic.
It's become the model for any number of subsequent nonfiction films, which take single topics of fundamental importance and try to play Paul Revere to a sleeping populace that doesn't want to be awakened to the alarming truth. From FLOW (For Love Of Water) to Dirt to the new Countdown to Zero, these subsequent films have struggled for the right blend of simplicity, complexity and the attention-getting ability that Guggenheim and Gore did four years ago.
Countdown to Zero wants to alert us to the mind-boggling threat of nuclear weapons. Yes, the Cold War is over - but nukes remain a source of world-wide jeopardy, for a variety of reasons that Lucy Walker's film lays out for the viewer.
For starters, there's the whole terrorism threat: the possibility that, given lax security at various facilities in America and abroad, there is enough deadly nuclear material floating around that a terrorist could easily get his hands on some and make either a dirty bomb or an actual nuclear weapon. After all, Walker points out, you can find the plans for building a nuclear weapon on the Internet.
That's if the terrorists haven't gotten their hands on an actual nuclear warhead. As the film explains, the security in the former Soviet Union was not particularly tight around its nuclear arsenal after its break-up. As it split into its various component countries, the government apparently lost track of a number of them (though they can't say how many).
There's also the threat of the weapons we do know about - the possibility that one could accidentally be launched, triggering retaliation and mutually assured destruction. Which leads to revelations about just how close we came at several points in recent history to just such an event - like the night former Russian president Boris Yeltsin sat in the Soviet situation room, his finger poised over the button that would trigger a massive nuclear attack on the U.S. - because of a false alarm indicating an incoming nuclear attack from American forces.
If it gives you chills, it should, as testified to by various experts - including Valerie Plame, who was a valuable resource in tracking this sort of thing before the Bush administration burned her as a CIA covert operative in a petty political act of sabotage. In some ways, the talking heads in this film are reminiscent of the ones in Charles Ferguson's No End In Sight - with the same sad resignation about the fact that no one in power seems to have the necessary smarts or balls to make obvious decisions that would help tighten things up.
Countdown to Zero is scary stuff, though cinematically it's about on a level with a solid episode of 60 Minutes, minus the preening front-man reporter. It's an important subject, though a frustrating one to the average viewer. As with Inconvenient Truth, you're confronted with a problem for which there seemingly are only complicated solutions - far beyond the stunted attention span of the average audience member.
So, until someone mandates required viewing for documentaries meant to awaken the viewer to impending doom (and offers marching orders for viewers on how to change course), Countdown to Zero is, unfortunately, yet another cry in the wilderness.