Like just about every social-advocacy documentary of the last few years, Countdown to Zero works hard to convince you that its particular issue (the need for nuclear disarmament) is the most pressing one facing civilization. Director Lucy Walker lays out alarming, ominous facts about the ease of illegally obtaining and transporting nuclear materials (for use in bombs made by terrorists); the likelihood of accidents occurring with the existing nuclear arsenals of world governments; and the tiny miscalculations that could lead to all-out nuclear war and the potential annihilation of a large portion of the world’s population. As intended, it’s scary shit.
It’s also belabored, manipulative and occasionally disingenuous, and it ends with a call to visit a website or text a phone number to support the cause of nuclear disarmament. There’s no doubt that nuclear weapons pose a serious danger, even if this movie overstates that danger to some degree, but there’s also little reason to sit through 90 minutes of heavy-handed explanation as to why. Does Walker really need the detailed guide about how terrorist groups could put together their own bombs, or the shots of everyday life in major cities set to narration about the horrific destruction wrought by nuclear attacks? No, of course not, nor does she really need big-name ex-world leaders like Jimmy Carter, Mikhail Gorbachev and Tony Blair to make her point for her. She trots out all that and more anyway, but the whole thing could easily be condensed into a sentence: Support nuclear disarmament. There, I just saved you 10 bucks.