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“Countdown to Zero”: Don’t They Know It’s the End of the World?

“Countdown to Zero”: Don’t They Know It’s the End of the World? (photo)

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Can Al Gore’s global warming documentary become shorthand for a genre? (The scareumentary?) That’s what Participant Media’s Jeffrey Skoll implied when introducing the new film “Countdown to Zero” at its New York premiere Wednesday night. He noted that they’d been in search of the next topic to do “‘The Inconvenient Truth’ of,” and what we were about to watch was the result. “Countdown to Zero,” in other words, aims to be “The Inconvenient Truth” of nuclear warfare. If you feel a little short on global concerns, it offers plenty to add to your plate.

Taking its structure from an excerpt from JFK’s “nuclear sword of Damocles” speech to the U.N. in 1961, “Countdown to Zero” examines the various way we could arrive at nuclear annihilation via “accident, or miscalculation, or by madness.” “Accident,” as in the incidents when nuclear missiles were erroneously loaded onto bombers that then flew over the country, or dropped, with failed parachutes doing nothing to cushion their fall. “Miscalculation,” as in the apparently many times we almost escalated to nuclear war with the U.S.S.R. over misidentified scientific research rockets or faulty computer chips. “Madness,” by far the most troubling, as in terrorism.

The first two angles are almost incidental compared to the last. “Countdown to Zero”‘s most potent points are how easy it is to manufacture a nuclear bomb, how much nuclear material is floating around for sale in crumbling nations, and how slight the chances would be of that material getting discovered as it was smuggled into our country.

07212010_gorbachev.jpgWho would be so desperate, so ruthless as to deal in enriched uranium? How about a factory worker who just wants to buy a stove? Such was the case of one man who stole small amounts of uranium from the manufacturing plant that employed him. He ended up with one and a half kilos — enough to do some serious damage. No one noticed anything was missing.

Narrated by Valerie Plame and directed by Lucy Walker (“Devil’s Playground”) “Countdown to Zero” compiles at a usual ratio archival footage, animated sequences and interviews, a few surprising — like the one with Mikhail Gorbachev, who reflects on the perceived failure of his 1986 meeting with President Reagan in Reykjavik.

But it rarely manages to confect any memorable visuals to accompany its avalanche of information — a recurring device of laying a five-mile or two-mile impact ring over maps of major cities doesn’t actually help conceive of the potential destruction it’s attempting to illustrate, and the combination of Times Square New Year’s celebrations, with Israel Kamakawiwo’ole’s “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” playing in the background, and images of bombs exploding just seems like a cheap shot.

What does resonate are the moments with Robert Oppenheimer, a sad-eyed Cassandra figure weighed down with the implications of what he’d helped unleash on the world. But it’s that sense of Pandora’s box being irrevocably open that also works against “Countdown to Zero.” The film opens with a series of man-on-the-street interviews in different cities around the world, on how often people think about nuclear armament. Most don’t.

07212010_countdowntozero2.jpgIt ends with a push toward change, the global elimination of nuclear weapons, the banning of production of nuclear materials, the elimination of keeping nuclear missiles on high alert. But instead of sending me out onto the sidewalk energized to help, I felt a lot like those initial interviewees — like I wanted to put these things out of my mind.

If the technology to destroy the world is already out there, how can we possibly take it back? The many steps toward nuclear armament seem less pressing at this point than dealing with the reasons people would desire that kind of catastrophic power.

“Countdown to Zero” opens Friday in New York and Washington, D.C., with additional markets to follow.

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The Best Of The Last

Portlandia Goes Out With A Bang

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The end is near. In mere days Portlandia wraps up its final season, and oh what a season it’s been. Lucky for you, you can watch the entire season right now right here and on the IFC app, including this free episode courtesy of Subaru.

But now, let’s take a moment to look back at some of the new classics Fred and Carrie have so thoughtfully bestowed upon us. (We’ll be looking back through tear-blurred eyes, but you do you.)

Couples Dinner

It’s not that being single sucks, it’s that you suck if you’re single.

Cancel it!

A sketch for anyone who has cancelled more appointments than they’ve kept. Which is everyone.

Forgotten America

This one’s a “Serial” killer…everything both right and wrong about true crime podcasts.

Wedding Planners

The only bad wedding is a boring wedding.

Disaster Hut

It’s only the end of the world if your doomsday kit doesn’t include rosé.

Catch up on Portlandia’s final episodes on demand and at

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Your Portlandia Personality Test

The New Portlandia Webseries Is Going Your Way

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Carrie and Fred understand that although we have so much in common, we’re each so beautifully unique and different. To help us navigate those differences, Portlandia has found an easy and honest way to embrace our special selves in the form of a progressive new traffic system: a specific lane for every kind of driver. It’s all in honor of the show’s 8th and final season, and it’s all presented by Subaru.

Ready to find out who you really are? Match your personality to a lane and hop on the expressway to self-understanding.

Lane 10: Trucks Piled With Junk

Your junk is falling out of your trunk. Shake a tail light, people — this lane is for you.

Lane 33: Twins

You’re like a Gemini, but waaaay more pedestrian. Maybe you and a friend just wear the same outfits a lot. Who cares, it’s just twinning enough to make you feel special.

Lane 27: Broken Windows

Bad luck follows you around and everyone knows it. Your proverbial seat is always damp from proverbial rain. Is this the universe telling you to swallow your pride? Yes.

Lane 69: Filthy Cars

You’re all about convenience. Getting your car washed while you drive is a no-brainer.

Lane 43: Newly Divorced Singles

It’s been a while since you’ve driven alone, and you don’t know the rules of the road anymore. What’s too fast? What’s too slow? Are you sending the right signals? Don’t worry, the breakdown lane is nearby if you need it.

Still can’t find a lane to match your personality? Check out all the videos here. And see the final season of Portlandia this spring on IFC.

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Last-Minute Holiday Gift Guide

Hits from the '80s are on repeat all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC.

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GIFs via Giphy, Photos via The Everett Collection

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