If you're over 45, a big chunk of this documentary isn't going to be news to you: In a world awash in nuclear weapons, only one has to go bang to wipe out millions of people (minimum), or start a barrage of bombs that destroys the whole world (maximum). It's true that after the Soviet Union broke up and the Cold War was officially declared over, the idea of nuclear annihilation got put in the back of a drawer. But, as Lucy Walker points out in her clear-eyed documentary, plenty of nukes are still around, and the danger of one being used today may be even higher than last century.
The film uses archival footage to retrace how we got here -- and plenty of talking heads, including some major geopolitical players such as Pervez Musharraf, Mikhail Gorbachev and Tony Blair -- to spell out current threats. These still include an inadvertent action (an accidental launch or miscommunication), or a nuclear nation (there are nine) intentionally deploying a weapon. But new on the worry-about list are rogue players, terrorist organizations and unstable regimes that could acquire nuclear material and construct a weapon. This could be either an amateurish "dirty bomb" or a full-fledged launched device which scientists assure us isn't that hard or expensive to construct.
Countdown is a sobering film, though not without a frisson of real-life intrigue. Particularly hair-raising is the frequency with which smugglers are caught with small amounts of highly enriched uranium or plutonium. How many aren't detected?
The film's closing argument is that in failing to completely eradicate nuclear weapons, the world remains at the mercy of catastrophe either by mistake or intent. But unlike other recent take-action scare films (An Inconvenient Truth, Food, Inc.), I'm not sure what the newly informed citizen can do about it -- except, of course, not make their own A-bomb. In English, and various languages, with subtitles. Starts Fri., Aug. 6. Harris