Bomb at the Box Office

By Corn, David | Mother Jones, July/August 2010 | Go to article overview
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Bomb at the Box Office

Corn, David, Mother Jones

Is a Hollywood dream team's film about nuclear mayhem the next An Inconvenient Truth? BY DAVID CORN

the united states is about to launch a rocket in Norway to study the northern lights. It dutifully informs Moscow. But somehow, the Russian strategic command doesn't get the memo. When Russian radar spots the four stages of the rocket, the military concludes that four nuclear warheads may be heading toward Moscowthe opening shot of a nuclear war. The military tells the Russian president that he must fire nuclear missiles at the US before it's too late. But the president simply cannot believe an attack is under way. He violates one of the core principles of nuclear warfare-launch on warning-and orders his generals to keep their nukes in the silos. A nuclear holocaust is averted.

This is not the opening sequence to a big-budget popcorn movie. It actually happened, in 1995-sort of. The Russian military told then-president Boris Yeltsin an unknown missile had been launched. The nuclear-command briefcase (a.ka. the "football") was brought out in case Yeltsin had to order a counterstrike. Eventually, the rocket fell into the sea.

The still-too-close call is one of the many hair-raising anecdotes in a new documentary, Countdown to Zero, from Hollywood megaproducer Lawrence Bender, who also made An Inconvenient Truth. Four years after that blockbuster, Bender is trying to insert nuclear disarmament into popular consciousness the way he did with climate change-and this time, it's an even heavier lift.

Countdown to Zero is a splashy and distressing look at nuclear security and nonproliferation, packed with frightening accounts of uranium smuggling and assorted near-misses. In a jailhouse interview in Russia, a former uranium worker explains why he swiped nuclear material to sell: He needed money for a new fridge and stove. (He was caught only because he was hanging out with members of a car-battery-theft ring that got busted.) A former National Security Council staffer recalls attending a meeting with a colonel who told him not to worry so much about nuclear war, since it would only kill 500 million people. A onetime nuclear launch officer relates how he and another officer could have gamed the system to fire nuclear missiles on their own. Nonproliferation expert Joseph Cirincione notes how easy it is to smuggle highly enriched uranium; hiding it in kitty litter works well. It's the ultimate horror movie.

There hasn't been a major Hollywood attempt to generate buzz about nuclear weapons policy since TheDay After, a seminal 1983 made-for-television movie starringjason Robards that followed the plight of a group of Midwestemers struggling to survive in the aftermath of a war with the Soviets. Nearly 100 million Americans watched the film, including President Ronald Reagan-who wrote in his diary that the movie was "very effective and left me gready depressed."

Countdown to Zero was born in 2007, when Bender (whose producer credits include Pulp Fiction, Kill Bill, Good Will Hunting and Inghuñous Basteras) got a call from Jeffrey Skoll, the founding president of eBay and chairman of Participant Media. Skoll and his partners had created Participant in 2004 to produce quality movies that could inspire filmgoers to become activists. Besides Bender's An Inconvenient Truth, they'd made Syriana; Good Night, and Good Luck; The Kite Runner; and Charlie Wilson's War.

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