Countdown To Zero

Countdown To Zero

Static Mass Rating: 1/5
Dogwoof Pictures 

Release date: June 24th 2011
Certificate (US): PG
Running time: 89 minutes

Directors: Lucy Walker

Cast: Tony Blair, Jimmy Carter, Mikhail Gorbachev, F. W. de Klerk

The threat of a nuclear war is something we’re told we live with everyday. But just how real is that threat? Probably more pressing is the question “From whom are we most at risk from?”

In 1939 when Albert Einstein and Leó Szilárd warned the US that Nazi Germany might be able to develop nuclear weapons, this set into motion the Manhattan Project and the first steps in the nuclear arms race were taken. Julius Robert Oppenheimer was part of this project and is now regarded as the “father of the atomic bomb” for his part in ushering us into the nuclear age.

Contdown To Zero

On 6 August 1945, the US detonated the first nuclear bomb over the Japanese city of Hiroshima and three days later another one over Nagasaki. Both bombs killed approximately 200,000 Japanese people, including civilians. Four years later, the Soviet Union detonated their first nuclear device, after that, the United Kingdom France, and China followed.

Realising what they had started and not wanting other nations to follow, the US got together with a few other like-minded pals and formed the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) in 1968 to prevent the development of further weapons.

Civilian victim of the Hiroshima bomb

So far India, Israel, Pakistan, Iraq, North Korea, Iran, Libya and Syria are not part of that treaty and the US, along with China, France, Russia and the United Kingdom are the five nations legally allowed to have nuclear arsenals at their disposal but cannot build or maintain such weapons in perpetuity.

The current estimates, according to, for these nations are:

Hiroshima levelled after the bomb

China: About 240 total warheads.
France: Fewer than 300 operational warheads.
Russia: Approximately 2,400 operational strategic warheads , approximately 2,000 operational tactical warheads, and approximately 7,000 stockpiled strategic and tactical warheads.
United Kingdom: Fewer than 160 deployed strategic warheads, total stockpile of up to 225.
United States: 5,113 active and inactive nuclear warheads and approximately 3,500 warheads retired and awaiting dismantlement. The 5,113 active and inactive nuclear warhead stockpile includes 1,968 strategic warheads, approximately 500 operational tactical weapons, and approximately 2,645 inactive warheads.

So, I dare ask again, from whom are we at most risk from?


This doesn’t stop Lucy Walker from painting a different picture though. Countdown To Zero presents a brief history of the atomic bomb, but it seems more content to align itself with the view that other nations pose a clear and present threat with nuclear weapons capabilities and more are racing to join them. It many ways it seeks to justify the US as the nation that holds the most threat, but I find this argument nothing more than absurd. There is no justification for holding your own weapons of mass destruction while preaching to the rest of the world on the need to disarm, especially when the only ever use of nuclear weapons comes from your own back yard in the indiscriminate aerial bombardment of undefended cities.

Countdown To Zero takes the idea that the nuclear threat could be acted on in one of three ways – by accident, miscalculation, or madness – as stated by John F. Kennedy’s in an address before the General Assembly of the United Nations on September 25, 1961.


There’s a lot of footage of terrorist attacks, we see the bombed out remains of the federal buildings in Okalahoma in 1995, New York City in the 9/11 attacks, Madrid and London as Walker ties in the nuclear threat with terrorism, but when a man who is imprisoned for selling uranium talks about the justification for terror attacks on US soil, the guards standing nearby seem obviously and understandably angry.

Yet I cannot help but question why in a documentary which looks at nuclear weapons and forges a link with terrorism fails to first of all look at the nature of terrorism itself; why it occurs and why it’s all relative. The US bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki with its clear disregarded for civilian life and ethics in warfare was more devastating than any other terrorist attack, yet it’s allowed to police and govern the world by its laws and doctrines without ever having to apologies for its own acts of terror. This is left widely unaddressed in Countdown To Zero.

like a graveyard with not a tombstone standing

What I also found puzzling was the little time it spent on Oppenheimer. Not only a fascinating man of historical importance, but a man who deeply regretted what he had been part of. He would later say, quoting the Bhagavad Gita: “Now, I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds”. There’s more time spent on experts who point fingers and it all comes to one central point towards the end when we see crowds gathered at Time Square for the annual New Years Eve celebrations – the US will continue to arm itself and use whatever force it deems necessary to protect its way of life and interests.

After watching this documentary I’d have to say that I think Kennedy was wrong when he said “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.” It won’t be by accident, or miscalculation, or madness but by stupidity.

As long as the US continues to be the kid who wants to have all the toys rather than change its policies on a number of issues, then propaganda documentaries like this one will continue to be made.

Arms Control Association

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