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Review: Smart, scary 'Countdown' traces evolution of atomic bomb

| Friday, Aug. 6, 2010

"Countdown to Zero," Lucy Walker's documentary about the evolution of the atomic bomb, is smart, swift and scary as hell.

At its center, frequently repeated throughout the film and serving as its rallying cry, is John F. Kennedy's 1961 statement to the General Assembly of the United Nations: "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. The weapons of war must be abolished before they abolish us."

Walker, a British documentarian ("Devil's Playground," "Blindsight"), outlines for us the making of a nuclear weapon and explains how many such weapons exist, and in how many countries. (She also reveals, through on-the-street interviews, how very few of us know these figures.) Various witnesses, such as former CIA covert-operations officer Valerie Plame Wilson and former Soviet Union leader Mikhail Gorbachev, give their perspectives.

And Walker includes a graphic, terrifying description of nuclear destruction and its aftereffects, as we watch New Year's Eve revelers in New York's Times Square. "Everything," we're told calmly, "would be vaporized."

The film ends on a note of hope that's welcome but almost jarring, considering the alarming footage that came before. At the close of the film's parade of grim statistics, we're given an encouraging one: 183 countries have chosen not to make nuclear weaponry. At the time of the film's completion in 2009, we're told, 23,355 nuclear weapons existed — but, thanks to the new Global Zero Initiative (in which world leaders plan a phased elimination of nuclear weapons), the countdown to zero has begun.

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