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Sword of Damocles: Countdown to Zero

In Lucy Walker's nuclear answer to An Inconvenient Truth, ex-CIA operative Valerie Plame Wilson and others make the case that the end of the Cold War is no reason to feel safe.


“Today, every inhabitant of this planet must contemplate the day when this planet may no longer be habitable. Every man, woman and child lives under a nuclear sword of Damocles, hanging by the slenderest of threads, capable of being cut at any moment by accident, or miscalculation, or by madness. The weapons of war must be abolished before they abolish us.”


President John F. Kennedy spoke those words in an address before the General Assembly of the United Nations on September 25, 1961. Almost 50 years later, the sentence in bold serves as the backbone for Lucy Walker’s new documentary, Countdown to Zero. Walker interviewed world leaders—Carter, Gorbachev, Blair, Musharraf—defense specialists, and historians to paint a broad picture of the evolution of nuclear arms in order to make the case for complete disarmament. Without the benefit of deterrence inherent in the U.S./Soviet Cold War—and with the increased availability of nuclear ingredients to rogue elements—why risk having nuclear arms at all?


Lawrence Bender, the producer of An Inconvenient Truth (and numerous Quentin Tarantino films, among others), spearheaded the project when he was looking to replicate the social awareness created by Al Gore and Davis Guggenheim’s film about global warming. Though Obama was not yet in office when work began on Countdown, the new president has supported the elimination of nuclear weapons, beginning with the Global Zero project, launched by 100 world leaders in December 2008. Obama continues to work with Russian President Medvedev to lead by example.
Countdown to Zero: Valerie Plame Wilson
Valerie Plame Wilson


One of the film’s most effective talking heads is Valerie Plame Wilson—perhaps the most famous ex-CIA operative of our time (given that their typical goal is to remain unknown). She was famously exposed by columnist Robert Novak in a piece about her husband, the former U.S. Ambassador Joseph Wilson; their story will hit the silver screen this fall in Fair Game, a feature film starring Naomi Watts and Sean Penn. Plame Wilson’s “beat” in the CIA was nuclear arms: could terrorists get hold of the elements needed to construct nuclear weapons—in particular, plutonium or highly enriched uranium?


Countdown to Zero premiered at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival, and was also shown at Cannes. At a roundtable discussion this week, Walker, Bender, and Wilson were promoting the film’s theatrical release—it opens this Friday, July 23, in both New York and DC—and exploring the many fascinating issues raised in the film.

Countdown to Zero: Lucy Walker
Lucy Walker


What was your goal with Countdown to Zero?
Lucy Walker: We really tried to sort out the fact from the fiction. There are actually quite a lot of myths and misunderstandings—it’s a really complicated subject. We wanted to give people the tools to grasp what they were reading, and really understand it. I think that’s something that An Inconvenient Truth achieved, and it inspired me—you felt so confident when you came out of that movie that you had a good grip on this really important subject.
Have you always been interested in nuclear disarmament?
Lucy Walker: Always, yeah. I’m a tiny bit too young for duck and cover, but I was terrified; I grew up in England, and we all thought we were going to get nuked. Any child can relate to these things being horrible, and we don’t want to destroy this world. Any algebra where you can destroy the world X number of times over… it’s not zero, and that’s the only quantity that’s satisfying.
I would love for the reason for that terror to have gone away. I think the terror has gone away, but the underlying causes for the terror actually have not. Unfortunately, those threats are multiplying as we look into the future, so that’s really why we made the movie.
In the film, you say that there are currently 23,000 nuclear weapons in the world. Do you think that number is accurate?
Valerie Plame Wilson: To the best of our knowledge, yes.
Lucy Walker: It was 23,300, and it’s now 22,200. They’ve actually reduced the number since we fact-checked it for the movie.
Lawrence Bender:
President Obama just released the amount of nuclear weapons we have in our country—5,113—as part of the transparency thing that he’s doing. We have 9,600 total, but over 4000 are being decommissioned.
Lucy Walker: The good news is that they are coming down as we speak.
Countdown to Zero: Mikhail Gorbachev
Mikhail Gorbachev


It was very interesting to see in the film Ronald Reagan’s own personal, self-motivated efforts to try and eliminate nuclear weapons.
Lucy Walker: The transcripts have been released of the Reykjavik summit of 1986. They wound up proposing total disarmament, and it didn’t work out, and the advisors were a bit freaked out. But I think sometimes people who protested in the 80s felt they weren’t being listened to, and that the leaders weren’t hearing them. I actually think you can point to that summit and say the leaders were listening, that they were human feeling people who didn’t like the weapons either. I think the arms race turned around.
The transcript says—it’s really tender stuff—President Reagan says to President Gorbachev, “We’ll destroy all these weapons, and then in ten years’ time, we’ll come back here, and take the very last one and destroy it together. And we’ll throw a tremendous party for the whole world.”
Lawrence Bender: And that’s the great liberal, Ronald Reagan. [smiles]
Valerie Plame Wilson: And to see the profound sadness on Gorbachev’s face [in the film] that they did not achieve what they had set out to do—recognizing that they had that moment… and failed, through forces that they could not control.
Lawrence Bender: There are a lot of people in the movie who have changed their way of thinking about this, because we’re living in a different world now. The old world—Cold War and mutually assured destruction—that’s over. And now, post-9/11, we’re living in a very different type of world, where the people we are afraid of are really not afraid of retaliation.
Lucy Walker: Bob McNamara’s [interview in the film] is the last interview he ever gave. He’s someone who earlier in his career was pro-nuke, and had come around to this opinion [of disarmament]. At the end of his life, he really wanted us to get this message through that—he wagged his finger—“Nations are going to be destroyed.”
No matter what people used to think in the Cold War, whether it was a useful deterrent back in those days, it doesn’t matter. In the new world, with proliferation and terrorism going the way they are headed, these weapons—powerful as they are—counterintuitively, just don’t keep us safe. We’re less safe because they are in the world. That’s such a difficult argument to get your brain wrapped around, and that was the trick with the movie—to explore that strange, surprising dichotomy. They are more likely to be used against us, and there is nothing we can do with them that makes us more safe with them in the world.



In researching the film, did you find anyone who was totally against disarmament?
Lawrence Bender: There is a wide variety of [opinions] on the subject, but there’s a big intersection of people who think we should be going to zero and people who think we should reduce. There are not a lot of people left who think we should have more.
Valerie Plame Wilson: Where you hear criticism is from those who say, “Well, mutually assured destruction kept us safe for how many decades. Why would we change?” The answer to that is the world has changed profoundly. We are no longer in that paradigm, that bipolar world. They also misunderstand the point of the movie, which is not to do this unilaterally. It’s not going to be just, “Okay, follow our example.” There is a very highly orchestrated, detailed plan to get to zero. I think they are uninformed; hopefully, the movie will bring them along.
Those who hear of this, and might be predisposed initially to go, “Wait a minute”—it’s because they are still stuck in a Cold War mindset. The chance of us going to war with Russia these days is about nil. That is no longer the threat—it’s proliferation, and therefore the only way to provide any sort of safety from this existential threat is to go to zero.
Countdown to Zero: Mahmoud Ahmadinejad
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad


Can you talk a bit about how the movie got started?
Lawrence Bender: A lot of people called [after An Inconvenient Truth] and said, “I want to make the Inconvenient Truth of X issue.” It was the first time a movie like that exploded in a sense—maybe the wrong choice of word! [smiles]—and so everyone was thinking: How can I use this for our issue? There were a lot of interesting and really good projects that came up.
But when [Matt Brown and Bruce Blair of the World Security Institute] called about the “Inconvenient Truth of Nuclear Weapons,” I went, “Oh, wow.” I had to stop for a minute. We started thinking about who we could bring on, and Lucy got the job hands down.
With Valerie Plame Wilson, we needed a hot CIA gal.* [laughs]
Lucy Walker: Suddenly I had this gigantic responsibility of making this incredibly important and urgent film. So I had to do the world’s most massive research: It’s numbing, it’s so big you can’t see it, it’s unfashionable, it’s confusing, it’s so scary you don’t even want to think about it. What do we need to communicate? What do we need to include?


We applied for permissions, and people said no. We requested interviews, and people said no. But the ones who said yes, I’m really proud of.
Countdown to Zero


Lawrence Bender: [We did] almost 100 interviews, a lot of which didn’t get into the movie, since there’s only so much [room]. But we did some extraordinary interviews.


Lucy Walker: I really went to the source, calling everyone up, asking, “What’s the most urgent and important information we need to tell people? Who is the experts’ expert, and the spokespersons’ spokesperson, on each topic? We got world leaders who have had their finger on the button, and who had that personal responsibility for the arsenal.
Valerie Plame Wilson: This was also 2 ½ years ago, and at that point, we didn’t have this president in office. [Obama] has given great voice and great leadership to this whole idea—it’s given us traction. He’s done what Lawrence called a trifecta: he pulling the nuclear posture review; he pulled together 47 world leaders in Washington in April; he signed the [2010] START treaty. So there is momentum building.
Lawrence Bender: It’s something that no one thinks about. I mean, it’s on the president’s agenda, but the average citizens we show in the movie—it’s nowhere near their consciousness. But it is such a huge threat—it is the sword of Damocles hanging over our heads, and most people are not looking up.
Our hope is that it ultimately reaches this issue to the top of the political agenda—so that not only does the START treaty get ratified, but that it’s just the beginning of a long process. The START treaty is a modest—
Valerie Plame Wilson: It’s a good kickoff.
Countdown to Zero


It’s such a bleak subject. Can we walk away from your movie with some legitimate hope?
Lucy Walker: The president called for a world free of nuclear weapons! I feel like I dreamed that!


Lawrence Bender: In the 80s, there were 70K weapons. We’re down to 23K. There was a nuclear freeze movement, and it led to a massive reduction. And now, many people have changed the way they think about this. Can we get to zero tomorrow? No. But certainly, a lot of people—former heads of state, former military advisors, people in power now—do believe this is the direction we are heading.


The president actually said it when he was running in primaries, he said it in Prague when he announced the negotiations of the START treaty—Medvedev and the president both talked about a [nuclear-free] world. He did say we might not reach it in our lifetime… [but] there are those who think we can reach it within the next couple of decades.
Valerie Plame Wilson: The film, as bleak as it is, does empower you at the end—it doesn’t just dump you out. It shows you how we can get there. There is this entire social action campaign that has been built around the movie. There’s, there’s… people as individuals, can do something, whether it’s petition their senator for the ratification of the START treaty, sign the Global Zero declaration, or just see the movie and tell their friends to see the movie. Just pay attention!

*Note: We asked them if they had seen Salt—also debuting this week—which features Angelina Jolie as a “hot CIA gal” tussling with Russians over nuclear arms. They laughed, and said, “Not yet.”


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