Friday, July 23, 2010

"Countdown to Zero" is a summary film about the nuclear weapons threat

Suppose some time in the near future I’m living in Toronto or Vancouver or maybe even LA making my movie, have any major television channel on in my condo, and suddenly get “breaking news” that a small nuclear device went off in New York City or Washington DC (or maybe both). The world would never be the same. Simulation of such a fictitious day would probably make an “interesting” event for a network like CNN. We were warned.

The film “Countdown to Zero”, directed by Lucy Walker, from Participant and Magnolia Pictures, starts its argument (after a brief prologue with Gary Oldman) exploring the ease with which highly enriched uranium (HEU) can be sequestered in lead containers so that normal shipping security doesn’t detect them. Sleeper cells could, with moderate know-how, construct a crude weapon. Less likely is the theft or illegal purchase of a suitcase device. But Al Qaeda is dead set on trying to do this, according to the film. Osama bin Laden’s sense of revenge is measured in body counts, almost like the morbid way we once looked at the Vietnam war.

About half way through the film, it shifts gear to examination of the spread of nuclear weapons to unstable countries like Pakistan and probably Iran and North Korea soon. The geopolitical ramifications are explored, as there would develop a number of Islamic states in the Middle East with nuclear weapons to oppose Israel.

The Berlin Wall fell in 1989 and the Soviet Union collapsed at the end of 1991, but the US and Russia, while having negotiated some reduction of nuclear weapons, still maintain over 23000 nuclear warheads. The film covered the SAC and the weapons silos in the Great Plains, maintained by airmen who drill checklists all the time. In 1995, there was an “accident” off the coast of Norway that, according to the “launch on warning” policy, could have led Russia to attack the US; Yeltsin kept a cooler head.

The film shows photo maps of many world cities and the reach of nuclear blast zones over them. It covers the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis briefly, but cites John Kennedy’s “Sword of Damocles” speech.

The film does mention the electromagnetic pulse (EMP) threat, but in conjunction as the first step of an all out nuclear attack (starting with high altitude EMP blasts to disable defenses in a region). In fact, as noted here, it's conceivable that a terrorist group or a rogue state (Iran or North Korea) could fire an EMP device from offshore with a scud-type missle from a ship.

The film makes a strong philosophical point: "there is always a first time" ("eventually" in a mathematical sense, just not "frequently") for low probability events.

The film starts to make the point about the importance of policing up all the nuclear materials in the former Soviet Union (an aim of Sam Nunn and the Nuclear Threat Initiative) but then wanders away. I think one could make a documentary film about how those inspections should be conducted!

Magnolia’s website for the film is here.

Participant Media has a petition site called “Take Parthere. The movie poster has both yellow (for “yellowcake”) and red versions.

Here is the “Trailers” YouTube entry:

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