Early Warning: Apocalypse Now?


If there’s a movie experience more terrifying than watching Lucy Walker’s harrowing new documentary Countdown To Zero (out today) inside a Times Square screening room, I don’t know what that is.

Three years in the making, Countdown is a cold, comprehensive, and compelling dissection of the 100-kiloton gorilla menacing situation rooms worldwide: the scary proliferation of weapons-grade nuclear material. Launching from President Kennedy’s September 1961 speech to the UN General assembly (“Every man, woman and child lives under a nuclear sword of Damocles…),” the film painstakingly diagrams the instances in which undetected breaches of security have nearly led to World War III.

“I do think it’s going to happen,” says Walker. “Statistically, it just will, and when it does it will make the BP oil spill look like nothing in comparison. It’s going to be mind-blowing and I sort of wanted the movie to be one of those before, not after, discussions.” The Oxford- and NYU-trained filmmaker, who followed Amish teenagers (The Devil’s Playground) and blind climbers (Blindsight) for her last documentaries, didn’t arrive at this grim perspective lightly. Over the course of three years Walker went from one Georgia (for a chat with Jimmy Carter) to another (to investigate the black market smuggling triangle between Russia, Azerbaijan and the Black Sea).

In that time, she interviewed more than 400 people off-camera and almost 100 on, speaking to heads of state (Tony Blair, Pervez Musharraf, Mikhail Gorbachev), nuclear experts (Valerie Plame Wilson, Graham Allison and Richard Garwin, the man who invented the hydrogen bomb during a summer internship at Los Alamos), the guys pushing the buttons (Minuteman launch operators who said they could unlock the codes themselves) as well as the guys who were serendipitously caught before putting the bomb in terrorist hands. These latter include a worker at the Soviet nuke facility at Luch who skimmed a kilo of highly enriched uranium to get money for a stove and refrigerator; and Oleg Khinsagov, a disgruntled Russian mechanic who intended to sell 100 grams of HEU to Al Qaeda. Khingasov says at one point that “nine grams can bring down the elephant”). (PHOTO OF LUCY WALKER COURTESY MAGNOLIA PICTURES)

“I spoke to everybody, everybody, and nobody, nobody, nobody came up with a counter argument to say that we were safer with these weapons in the world,” says Walker, who even scored the last interview with late Defense Secretary Robert McNamara and had a number of phone conversations with Dr. A.Q. Khan, the rogue nuclear physicist who brought the bomb to Pakistan. “Tragically, I couldn’t persuade the producers to put him in the movie because he is a pretty controversial figure.” With any luck those audio recordings will make the DVD, along with Walker’s recollections of a nuclear weapons material cleanup mission she was embedded with in Hungary:

“These great American and Russian agents were transporting seven nuclear weapons-worth of fissile material out of the Hungarian countryside, where for some reason it was sitting there,  guarded by a wooden fence and a sleepy old guard dog,” she recalls of an all-too-common scenario she wasn’t allowed to film. “The train got turned around at the border by the Slovenian Prime Minister because of sensitivities during the election, but the Hungarians wouldn’t take it back. Walker watched as nuclear agents from U.S., Russia, and U.N. ambassadors disputed the nuclear weapons material out in the countryside overnight, guarded by a few men with machines guns. “That’s not a lot when you consider what this stuff represents.”

Nine nations officially possess nuclear weapons capabilities. That’s a combined 23,000 weapons and enough highly-enriched fuel to power 100,000 more. The U.S. and Russia still have thousands of Cold War-era missiles on hair-trigger, high alert, ready to fire on a moment’s notice. “If you’ve been near them, it’s not very reassuring,” says Walker. “As someone in the movie says so eloquently, ‘They don’t call them Minuteman missiles for nothing.'” With this, you’ve got a film that makes An Inconvenient Truth look wildly optimistic. To be fair, it was put in motion by the same producers, and already has its own activist movement, Global Zero.

“If people are scared watching the movie, imagine me and my life, because I had to immerse myself in it for three years,” says Walker, who’s also releasing what she calls “the antidote to Countdown To Zero” in October, Waste Land, an immersive film about Vik Muniz’s photo series featuring the Brazilian garbage pickers who scavenge the world’s largest landfill, Jardim Gramacho. While she admits there’s plenty more uncovered ground on the nuclear front–like the lobby and money behind the corporate bomb-makers–Walker jokes that her next project might be a little tamer. “The next one’s about kittens and birthday parties.”