‘Countdown to Zero’ Calls for Young People to Care About Nuclear Weapons
The filmmakers who brought you 'An Inconvenient Truth' want to create a sense of urgency in bringing the number of nuclear arms to zero.
SOURCE: Magnolia Pictures
According to a recent likely voter survey with CBS News, the top issues voters care about are the economy, the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, and the oil spill. Together those three issues make up 50 percent of the nation’s list of top priorities and for good reason. But one issue that isn't listed among voter top priorities is nuclear nonproliferation, a topic that has been relegated to the “other” option, where just 2 percent of Americans air their concerns over everything from net neutrality to the cost of groceries.
Lucy Walker’s latest documentary Countdown to Zero, a Participant Media production, looks to change that and wants to bring the issue of nuclear weapons to the forefront of the American people’s collective psyche. Countdown, which premiered on Friday, July 23, serves as a warning to viewers in the same vein as some of the company's previous releases like An Inconvenient Truth or Food, Inc. This time, the spread and continued existence of an estimated 24,000 nuclear weapons takes center stage. The audience is warned that terrorists seek to acquire nuclear weapons, wouldn’t hesitate to use them, and, if they succeeded, would end the way we live forever. In short, the film isn't exactly cheery material. [Disclosure: Campus Progress received a small grant from The Ploughshares Fund to promote screenings of Countdown to Zero.]
But what's really missing from Countdown is a call to action. Countdown offers little direction for viewers who are inspired by the doomsday scenario of nuclear weapons. The film does offer some solutions to the problem of nuclear weapons, like “create international reprocessing centers” for highly enriched uranium and “take missiles off high alert status.” Such solutions could involve billions of dollars or congressional action or both. In comparison, do-it-yourself solutions to climate change—actions like retrofitting a house to be more energy conscious, investing in a hybrid car or, even simply being more mindful of recycling—seem like simple and easy tasks.
Perhaps it is that very detachment that is keeps nuclear proliferation off the front burner in the minds of voters. Countdown leaves the audience with a feeling of hopelessness. Everything seems beyond the control of the individual. Such a feeling is, in some ways, justified; signing a petition or writing a letter may be momentarily fulfilling, but it doesn’t offer the same sense of forward motion that comes from, say, taking steps to curb energy consumption. To fix this problem, advocates of nuclear nonproliferation necessarily need to rely on elected leaders, both at home and abroad.
Fortunately, Walker tells Campus Progress, the leaders are the ones who are taking action. “[President Barack Obama] is really switched on with this issue,” Walker says.
Indeed, earlier this year, Obama met with Russian President Demetri Medvedev to sign the renewal of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, more commonly known as START, to begin curbing the stockpiling of nuclear weapons.
“It’s the most urgent threat we face today,” Walker says.
But despite Walker's stance of its importance, nuclear nonproliferation is an issue that the Millennial generation (those aged 18-29) is largely ignoring. In a 2008 CBS poll of young voters, nuclear weapons didn’t even appear on a list of the most important issues.
When asked how big of an issue young people believe nuclear proliferation to be, Walker cut no corners. “I don’t think it is at all,” she says. “I think it should be, but it isn’t.”
That could be due in large part to the fact that the Millennials are the first generation that has been born and raised almost entirely after the end of the Cold War, when the constant threat of nuclear war was a fact of life. Unlike the parents or grandparents of Millennials, today’s young people have no real experience preparing for, or even expecting, nuclear war. There are no drills in schools (even as useless as those drills were, they did raise awareness) and no stashes of provisions in the basement. Even signs advertising nuclear fallout shelters bolted to the sides of buildings are worn down and rusted.
But Walker says that lack of urgency is a serious problem. “We should all be working to address this threat,” she says. “The intelligence of young people [means] they are smart enough to have more than one thing in their heads at a time.”
Seeing the 90-minute film will certainly leave the audience thinking about it. Politicians, activists and other notables like former President Jimmy Carter and foreign policy guru Zbigniew Brzezinski appear on screen and discuss just how close we are—and how close we’ve come in the past—to complete destruction at the hands of nuclear weapons.
The film points out that there are basically three ways for there to be a nuclear disaster: An accident, a miscalculation, or a madman. The film reveals that all three have nearly come to pass. Whether that moment is a military plane carrying a nuclear warhead that crashes or a former member of the Soviet Union that has lost track of some nuclear material, the threat lingers in the shadows.
The idea that nuclear disaster is closer than anyone would like to admit is hammered home so thoroughly it borders on outright fearmongering. Violent images of the 2006 terrorist attacks on the Madrid rail, the London bus and subway bombings in 2005, and the coordinated series of bombings in Mumbai in 2008 are coupled with an ominous description of the effects of a nuclear detonation in Manhattan. And as the film notes, the amount of nuclear material that can fit inside a shoe box would be enough to level a city and kill millions of people instantly.
It is during such a description that might have been the part in the movie where the narrator offers a glimmer of hope, a sign that there are steps we can take to avoid such an apocalyptic event. Instead, we are given a series of deadening predictions and statements of fact. “The objective of al-Qaida is to ‘kill four million Americans,’” says Graham Allison, a nuclear terrorism expert. Valerie Plame Wilson, famous for her outing as a CIA agent by the Bush administration, says that al-Qaida met with Pakistani scientists and discussed nuclear weapons.
“Al-Qaida is determined to acquire nuclear weapons and to use them if they get them,” Wilson says in the film.
And at a congressional hearing in 2004, then-Sen. Joe Biden was presented with a crude, homemade and all-but-functional nuclear bomb made entirely from everyday, legally-acquired products as a demonstration of the relative ease with which anyone can put together a potentially deadly weapon.
All of this information added up doesn’t leave much room for silver linings. That could well be a purposeful decision by the filmmakers, who clearly hope that this film serves as a wake-up call.
“When you visit a country, and then you read an article about that country, it’s much more relevant because you have the context,” Walker says. That’s what she hopes will happen with nuclear nonproliferation. Having seen this movie, Walker hopes, the audience will be less likely to gloss over articles pertaining to nuclear nonproliferation, and perhaps push for more focus in the United States to comply with START.
That will be the first step, the initial push that will get the ball rolling on a steady, albeit lengthy, march toward zero.
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