Foreign & Documentary Films in Theaters and DVD/Home Video ">

Reviews of Recent Independent, Foreign, & Documentary Films in Theaters and DVD/Home Video

Rotten Tomatoes
Showtimes & Tickets
Enter Zip Code:

Valerie Plame in COUNTDOWN TO ZERO (Photo: Magnolia Pictures)

Written & Directed by Lucy Walker
Produced by
Lawrence Bender
Released by Magnolia Pictures
USA. 90 min. Rated PG

A line exists between informing the public of a dangerous status quo and fearmongering, that is, between performing one’s journalistic duty and sensationalizing a story. The line itself isn’t a fine one, but the mainstream media often tramples on that distinction as reporters servile to powerful sources anonymously pass on ghastly exaggerations of All-Powerful Terrorists to their readers. Yet, it’s rather obvious when propaganda flashes before one’s eyes, and documentarian Lucy Walker’s latest film Countdown to Zero is so shot-through with fear that it would not be out of place if Hillary Clinton were to trot it out before the UN in a bid to convince the world that America needs to attack some new country. I hear Iran is a popular choice.

Zero takes its cues from a quote by John F. Kennedy—“Every man, woman, and child lives under a nuclear sword of Damocles, hanging by the slenderest of threads, capable of being cut at any moment by accident or miscalculation or by madness”—and spends 85 of its 90-minute running time convincing the viewer just how close we are to nuclear Armageddon. Fantasy-filled segments relate just how a terrorist might get a hold of enriched uranium and just how easy it would be to smuggle it into the United States and just how someone somewhere might make a mistake and initiate the end. Maddeningly, this information is based on fact, historical record, and feature experts, not blowhards, yet it’s inundated with woulds, coulds, and conjecture, losing the main point—the absurdity of nuclear weapons—in an abyss of anxiety.

Walker most likely did not set out to make a film like this. Her goals are noble: to bring attention to the danger nuclear weapons still pose and to inform the public on what they can do about it. That goal doesn’t seem debatable at this point. Nuclear weapons are a holdover from a decrepit and senile way of thinking, and rather than keeping us safe, they threaten to eliminate all life on the planet. What is debatable, however, is how one goes about educating the public about this fact. It’s one thing to have a sober diagnosis that lays out an argument and looks at ways to alleviate the problem. It’s another thing to diagram the pathway one could take to nuke New York or to show maps of major cities with a blast radius emblazoned throughout, animating the shockwave an explosion would set off. Climaxing with footage of Times Square on New Year’s Eve (as commentators explain in voice-over about what a bomb could do and its repercussions) is simply not responsible filmmaking. Whether Walker intended this or not is moot. The point is, she has made a film that promotes fear, and with the exception of a token denouement passing the torch onto the viewer, she shirks her responsibilities as a journalist. Andrew Beckerman
July 23, 2010



Archive of Previous Reviews

Contact us