Countdown to Zero (2010)

Star – Nukes

Genre – Documentary

Run Time – 1 hr 30 minutes

Certificate – PG13

Country – USA

Awards – 3 Nominations

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It’s a little known fact but there have been over 1900 nuclear detonations on Earth with 500 of them overland to date and still going strong, two over cities of course, North Korea the latest to join the nuclear club. There are currently around 16,300 warheads spread between 9 countries today. But post 911 the word got frightened again and we were back in1962 and the Cuban Missile Crisis fearing, at the very least, a dirty bomb attack from Al-Qaeda. America showed less calm this time around and decided to attack the Muslim world and why not reshape the Middle East in the process to meet Americas cheap oil needs? It did not go well. Back in the Cold War the threat was constant of nuclear annihilation, intended or not, accidents more likely to cause the apocalypse, it seems, if you go by this entertaining documentary. If Yeltsin had one too many vodkas in the 1990s or a $120 safety switch had not worked on a B52 in the 1980s the story would have been very different. This documentary sets out to detail those near misses and tries to terrify the cr*p out of you.

The idea for the film first occurred to the producers when the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Al Gore after the success of his documentary about global warming, An Inconvenient Truth (which had a lot inconvenient lies in it) Director Lucy Walker decided to apply the Michael Moore school of documentary making and make nukes fun and thrilling. It was not that thrilling for some doing just $300,000 to date in places like The Village.It did not earn mainstream appeal. It was, however, one of the rare documentaries to screen at Cannes and was then privately screened for then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in the White House. More than 84 people,some very important, were interviewed for the film.


  • James Baker III      …             Himself
  • Tony Blair               …             Himself
  • Zbigniew Brzezinski               …             Himself
  • Jimmy Carter          …             Himself
  • Joseph Cirincione  …             Himself
  • F.W. de Klerk         …             Himself
  • Mikhail Gorbachev                …             Himself
  • John F. Kennedy   …             Himself (archive footage)
  • Robert McNamara …             Himself
  • Pervez Musharraf  …             Himself
  • Gary Oldman          …             Narrator
  • J. Robert Oppenheimer         …             Himself (archive footage)
  • Ronald Reagan      …             Himself (archive footage)


We begin with the now perfunctory dramatic archive footage of those mushroom clouds in the early Technicolor days of 1950s television you get in these old Pathe News documentaries. As the shock waves and smoke clears we see the man himself, Robert Oppenheimer, with an enigmatic expression standing in front of complex machinery with big dials and menacing chambers. When he finally figured the physics needed to create the explosion he must have realized he may have discovered the way mankind would end. If Donald Trump stays for much longer it won be long.

Gary Goldman’s faux middle calls accent kicks in and guides us through the story of the nuclear age as world leaders, alive and dead, say their piece on proliferation and the constant threat of nuclear war, now and then. Obviously the superpowers wanted to keep the weapons to themselves to maintain that assured nuclear destruction paradox if anyone one side was crazy enough to fire them but that didn’t last. In the 1980s it was covertly decided by both sides that Israel and South Africa got them and with India having them it was mad sure Pakistan both allowed them to maintain that status quo. But the Muslim Middle East were in no way going allow Israel to be the regional nuclear power and Iran and Iraq started their own programs of centrifuges to spin up weapons grade Uranium. China decided they wanted them and quietly armed North Korea with them. But the more people who have them the more people they could end up losing the secrets to someone else

The second big worry the documentary explores the theft of the materials and knowledge for terrorist and the likes to make their own bomb. You can get the plans how to make a bomb online and uranium one of the world’s most plentiful minerals but the expertise and facilities to create the bomb is much more of a state exercise. Rather alarmingly the film shows you the best way to detonate a nuclear bomb in downtown Manhattan, afield gun and a hamper size bomb stuck to the end of the barrel are enough for compression and impact and so ignition.

Apparently a lot of weapons uranium goesmissing every year and the film reveals the pot luck that most of it was spottedin transit from the various thieves. I kg is enough of the material for a bomb andlead pipe casing will stop it being detected in a standard shipping container.One chap worked at a nuclear processing planet and simply entered underweight numbersinto the books and shaved the tiny amounts he needed over time to make a few rubbles.He was only busted when the small time gang he sold it to were picked up for sellingstolen copper.

Nuclear accidents are covered and hairier still. A B52 accidentally dropped two nukes over Nebraska and although the parachutes deployed and safety measures kicked in four measures failed out of five on one bomb and just a cheap switch stopped it detonating. In Norway a satellite launch was misread by the Russians as its three stage separation headed over Russia mimicking a tactical nuke that would be launched to neutralize communications over a Russian city that would signal a full scale strike. Yeltsin had just ten seconds to decide if it was a first strike and fortunately he was not drunk and made the right call as it headed harmlessly to space and so world safety. Another time someone left a simulated attack training tape in a machine and everyone thought it was real and keys were in the silos ready to be turned. Incredibly not until 1974 were the launch codes in the US solos changed from 000.000! The idea was no one could break into the silo so it didn’t matter about the number.But they soon realized a rouge operator could start a nuclear war without the presidents say so.


With Gary Oldman’s foreboding commentary and a Pearl Jam’s soundtrack this is great fun and makes you think how close we have come to Armageddon, whether we know about it or not. Its Michael Moore delivery of funky graphics and cartoons alongside testimony from those who were there in the hot seats gives it providence and integrity. This stuff keeps world leaders up at night like it does with Syria. We seem closer to nuclear war in 2018.

It’s very pro America at times and not much Russian contribution but feels genuine if that these events happened and some very close calls.If you see the old B52s fly over that are still part of Americas bombing fleet these 50-year-old planes are often loaded with Nukes as part of America’s first response tactical team in the event of a nuclear war.. It’s hard to say how hyped up some of the accidents, threats and events are in the film.


What do you think?

Written by Phillip Ellis