Monday, March 21, 2011

Countdown to Zero provides exceptionally low-yield

Any regular reader of Cinema Styles knows that I have watched and read dozens of documentaries and books on the construction, deployment and testing of nuclear weapons. I have reviewed several documentaries and fiction movies on the subject here and my fascination with it goes back to reading a biography of Robert Oppenheimer that belonged to my dad when I was in middle school. I've read several different ones since then as well as all the usual suspects of the history of the bomb's creation: Day One, The Making of the Atomic Bomb, Brotherhood of the Bomb, etc. I do strange things sometimes when I'm bored like read essays on surviving a nuclear holocaust or revisiting the details of how the first bombs were made and tested or honing my knowledge of the Teller–Ulam design. I have a great deal of layman's knowledge about this subject and I can thus say with confidence, Countdown to Zero fudges the facts almost from the start. And that's a shame, because its premise is an important subject that should be discussed: the possibility of terrorists getting their hands on nuclear weaponry. Instead, Countdown to Zero is insecure about the facts at hand and goes down the road of yellow journalism fairly quickly.

At only 89 minutes, one would think there wasn't enough time to cram all the information needed into a documentary probing such a subject, and one would be right. Unfortunately, 89 minutes is too much time for Countdown to Zero, which appears to have only around 20 minutes or so of ideas that it is content to repeat endlessly for its hour and a half running time.

Right at the start, scare tactics take precedence over clarity. Now, I realize it's difficult to discuss nuclear destruction without scaring the hell out of the viewer, but the facts are played with fast and loose and quotes are taken out of context to suggest something much more ominous. For instance, inside the first three minutes we are presented with a story about the great Enrico Fermi. Apparently, he looked out over New York from an office building window, cupped his hands to about the size of a tennis ball, and said, "A little bomb like that, and it would all disappear."

Now, anyone having read up on nuclear weaponry would know, without having to be a nuclear physicist, that Fermi was referring to the size of the fissionable material, the enriched uranium (Uranium 235) or plutonium. The bomb itself is necessarily much bigger, containing the casements and the high explosives that surround the core and the timers and on and on. Even a very small nuclear device is going to be too heavy to casually carry around. This may seem like nitpicking but what they are doing at the very start of the documentary is misleading the viewer. The clear impression given is that a terrorist could take a bomb the size of a tennis ball and walk right into the center of Manhattan and blow it up.

And that kind of lazy impression-making wouldn't be so bad if the experts (and, brother, have they got experts! Practically everyone who has ever worked for the CIA, Pentagon or presidential cabinet in the last thirty years is interviewed!) didn't constantly make statements that disproved what they were actually trying to prove. That seems pretty hard to do, but they do it, early and often. Matthew Bunn, Associate Professor at Harvard (no, they don't actually say in what, it's that sloppy) recounts two cases of nuclear theft at about the ten minute mark. He talks about how poorly guarded the nuclear materials are in Russia and mentions two separate cases of men stealing the material to sell it. He talks breathlessly about how they just walked right in to the old shipyards, broke padlocks and took the materials and no one noticed. He says that. He says the words, "No one noticed." He even quotes the prosecutor in the latter case who said, "Potatoes were guarded better."

Wait, the prosecutor?

Yes, see, they were caught, tried and convicted. See how that worked? Professor Bunn says "no one noticed" but, well, I guess somebody did because they're both in prison now. That is, in fact, the only way Professor Bunn knows of their existence, because they were caught. They even interviewed the nuclear thief, in prison. Then the professor tells us he was caught by accident (arrested with his friends who were also stealing car batteries) and that every time they catch someone with materials, they didn't know the materials were missing until they caught the person. But the point that is ignored, is that they keep catching them. They mention at least six more cases. That's a lot of accidental arrests.

Then they spend a lot of time talking up how casually one can smuggle enriched uranium or plutonium into the country. And yes, it is easy to do, in theory. It's tempting to say this part of the documentary is irresponsible but the fact is, anyone who has access to a computer and certainly anyone who's actually trying to obtain fissionable material can find very quickly and easily what materials will hide the nuclear signature of fissionable material. This section is mainly filler and provides more scare tactics, complete with animations showing how easily the material could be hidden aboard container ships.

The doc then moves on to accidental destruction and, again, the experts make curious statements. We are told of the myriad of nuclear accidents that have happened over the decades, and yes there have been many, and we are told that the problem is that there are too many redundant safety systems. The more complicated a system, we are reminded, the more likely it is to fail. This is true but that's not the same thing as redundant safety systems and yet they refer to them as though they are interchangeable. In other words, a nuclear device is very complicated which means it could fail. Safety systems that are simple are put in place to prevent this. Since they could fail too, they put in several. That is why, despite accidental h-bomb drops over Florence, South Carolina and Goldsboro, North Carolina, plane crashes with h-bombs in Greenland and dozens of lost planes with bombs and explosions of planes with bombs, not one has ever blown up. Not one. We are reminded, however, that in this case or that case, only one safety system stood between the bomb and nuclear holocaust. True, but that's why the safety systems are redundant, and why they've worked. The fact that the expert can remind us "only one" safety system worked indicates that the system did indeed work.

One thing the doc hammers home, and this is quoted early on, is that the hardest part of building an atomic bomb is getting the fissionable material. Once you do that, building it is easy. Well, no. Entire countries working with every possible scientific advantage have failed to do so. One can assemble all the parts from easily available materials, which a panel before congress did a few years ago to show it could be done (the doc shows this). But getting all of it to work, perfectly; the timers, the high-explosives, the lenses, all of it, is no easy task. Conventional bomb makers blow themselves up working with gunpowder. Working with the complications of putting together an atomic bomb is a whole other matter.

What we're left with at the end of all this is lots of graphics showing aerial views of cities like New York, London and Paris with rings of destructive range rising up from them to let the viewer know how much of the city would be destroyed. They even describe the level of destruction that would come to New York City if a bomb went off but don't reveal what size bomb they're talking about. It is assumed they are describing a bomb made by a terrorist but the destruction they reveal clearly indicates a large hydrogen bomb, not a smaller fission bomb like the kind a terrorist would actually have. Then, Nuclear Arms Analyst Jeffrey Lewis describes how utterly complicated would be the efforts of terrorists building the bomb, tallying up millions of dollars, dozens of different experts in different fields and problem-free locations to do it all (because who's going to notice 100 or so people working on a large-scale project requiring $50,000 furnaces and used artillery cannons, right?) and calls it simple! Why, it'd be the easiest thing in the world for them to do it. "It's not rocket science," he says, "that's actually hard." Good grief.

Finally, Countdown to Zero comes to a close by calling the viewers to activism by... wait for it... going to a website. Yes, a "Demand Zero" website where you can sign petitions and donate money and somehow stop nuclear weapons from being built. I do believe it is towards a noble goal if, one day, all countries of the world can agree to never produce nuclear weapons again. But, seriously, a website? I guarantee you no president of the United States, or congress, or Prime Minister of Britain or Pakistan or any terrorist leader really gives a rat's ass if you go to "Demand Zero" and sign a petition. I'm not ridiculing the activism, I'm ridiculing the almost invisible scale of it. This isn't an ill-advised war that protests can hope to change through influencing policy making or elections. This is nuclear arming and, frankly, that isn't something decided by the wave of public opinion. Where and when and how often they're tested? Yes. Whether we have them? No. That's not going to change until we're sure no one will ever build another one and that's something we can never be sure of so don't look for nuclear disarmament any time soon.

Until then, the threat of nuclear terrorism is something that should be seriously considered and discussed in serious terms. Countdown to Zero, unfortunately, isn't the place to go for such a serious discussion. It's too bad. A documentary on this subject is welcome but Countdown to Zero is only interested in cool graphics, alarmist out of context quotes and strange contradictions that keep it from ever truly standing on solid ground. Countdown to Zero is a missed opportunity but aptly titled: By the end, the reductive "insights" have left us with nothing. Absolute zero.