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May 17, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

The producers of the documentary Countdown to Zero, who have indicated that they hope to reignite the “Ban the Bomb” movement of the 1950s and ’60s with it, may have been disheartened by the light attendance at the screening of their film at the Cannes Film Festival on Sunday and disappointed still more by the handful of journalists who showed up following the screening for a news conference that included such notables as Queen Noor of Jordan and former CIA operative Valerie Plame. “This is a unique panel in the history of Cannes,” moderator Henri Behar remarked before introducing the panelists, who also included producers Lawrence Bender and Jeff Skoll, director Lucy Walker, and former Norwegian Prime Minister Gro Bruntland. But the news conference seemed as unfocused as the documentary itself, which argues in favor of negotiating a reduction of the international nuclear stockpile to zero while at the same time warning that the greatest threat comes not from nations but from terrorists — who are unlikely even to approach a negotiating table. (There is barely a mention in the film of countries that maintain a secret stockpile of nuclear weapons that they regard as essential to their security and that have rejected signing the nuclear nonproliferation treaty.) Several of those involved in the production of Countdown had similar roles in the production of Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, including Bender, who said that his experience with the earlier film allowed him to “learn firsthand the power of what a movie could do.” And the movie does have some powerful scenes, in particular an interview with Oleg Khintsagov, a Russian who was caught smuggling enriched uranium to a man he thought was an agent for al-Qaeda. But primarily the film argues that the public must put pressure on political leaders to reduce nuclear arms, observing that they were cut in half under Reagan and Gorbachev in the 1980s and have remained at virtually the same level since. Some will not likely regard that reduction as a significant accomplishment, noting that it makes little difference whether a nuclear arsenal can destroy life on earth a thousand times over or ten times over. The film ends with a montage that includes footage of two-time Nobel Prize-winning scientist Linus Pauling (not identified) leading a “Ban the Bomb” march in the 1950s. Pauling won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1963 (after winning the Prize in chemistry in 1954) for his anti-nuclear activism, which mobilized public opinion against above-ground nuclear testing. Public opinion, however, is not likely to keep nuclear material out of the hands of terrorists, a terminal predicament for the Countdown to Zero producers.

[After the news conference one reporter asked another who is well-versed not only in the entertainment business but also in the politics of the Middle East, where nuclear proliferation remains a rankling issue, what she thought of the film. “I don’t think it will make any money,” she replied. That may be the least of its problems.]