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MOVIE REVIEW: Documentary takes look at different nuclear war scenarios

Photo by Kristen Ralph

Photo by Kristen Ralph

Coutdown to Zero

(PG)

2 1/2 out of 4 stars

As "An Inconvenient Truth" was to global warming, "Food Inc." was to agriculture and "Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room" was to financial malfeasance, "Countdown to Zero" is a preaching-to-the-choir documentary about the history of nuclear weapons.

Informative, stylish and briskly paced, the film isn't an educational tool as much as it is a fear-mongering, button-pushing piece of far-left propaganda that attempts to appeal to the Chicken Little lurking in all of us and scare the tar out of every viewer. On that level it succeeds in spades. As a movie, however, it's just average -- and annoyingly repetitive.

With a gloom and doom opening title sequence that would be more at home in a disaster epic, director Lucy Walker makes it clear this is going to be one serious, eye-opening film, and she gets it right about half of the time. When Walker sticks to the facts and lets the experts talk, the movie is swimmingly efficient and undeniably captivating.

Among the many mostly unknown science and defense professionals are former international heads of state and mainly Valerie Plame Wilson, the former CIA spy whose identity was leaked to the press by members of the George W. Bush administration.

Because her former duties included blocking Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon, Wilson's opinions and perspective on the issue carry great heft. In addition to her expertise, Wilson is an attractive woman and more than camera ready and it is understandable why Walker gives her so much screen time.

Walker also gets high marks for interspersing the interviews with a graphics-heavy nuclear timetable. She wisely devotes most of this portion to J. Robert Oppenheimer, the physicist who headed the Manhattan Project in the 1940s and created the first two bombs that were dropped on Japan and led to the end of World War II. An acknowledged and unapologetic liberal, Oppenheimer's regret regarding his work on nukes haunted him for the remainder of his years and lends the film some much-needed soul.

All of what's good in Walker's movie amounts to roughly an hour's worth of screen time and perhaps out of necessity to stretch the film to feature length and warrant a theatrical release, she piles on a bunch of filler. At least two dozen times, she includes aerial shots of major world cities with five-mile radius graphics laid over top indicating the level of damage a bomb would have on each. A little of this stuff goes a long way and by the third or fourth time, these shots start feeling like a bludgeoning gimmick.

Less gimmicky but no less tedious is Wilson's continuous revisiting of one particular line in a speech delivered by president John F. Kennedy in 1961 at the United Nations.

Thanks to some very adept speechwriters and his almost otherworldly talent as an orator, Kennedy could make anything sound good. This particular passage -- a riff on the Greek fable Damocles -- is admittedly stirring but by the time Walker is done with it, all of its poetry and nuance falls flat.

This is the kind of movie every informed adult should probably view but is also the kind of thing few people would want to give up their good money to see. Life provides us enough bad news; we don't need to pay someone to give us more of it. (Magnolia)