Thursday, January 26, 2012

We Need to "Countdown to Zero"

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We Need to "Countdown to Zero"

(from 7/23/10 on

If you want a quick education about the need to get rid of the world's nuclear arsenal before the world is a sad memory, then I recommend the documentary Countdown to Zero. British writer-director Lucy Walker (Devil's Playground, Blindsight, and the upcoming Wasteland) has provided such unsettling footage and information that it will knock the apathy out of any moviegoer. Her movie is deservedly getting a lot of attention because of its subject matter and that she was able to interview an impressive array of big shots, including Jimmy Carter, Michael Gorbachev, Tony Blair, Robert McNamara, Zbigniew Brzezinski, and outed C.I.A. agent, Valerie Plame Wilson. In anticipation of this weekend's release, I took part in the following interview with Walker, producer Lawrence Bender, and Wilson.
Q: How did you get started with this film?
Lawrence Bender: It started with the World Security Institute. Matt Brown and Bruce Blair, who are with WSI, are executive producers of the film, and they called me after we made An Inconvenient Truth. That's the first time a documentary like that exploded--oh, that's the wrong word! A lot of people were calling about making a similar film about their issues and many interesting projects came up. But when Matt and Bruce called about nuclear weapons I had to stop and think. Right about that time, Jeff Skoll, the financier of An Inconvenient Truth, and I were with Al Gore in Oslo when he was receiving the Noble Peace Prize. We talked about what was our biggest threat and decided it was nuclear weapons, Matt and Bruce's issue. So that's when it started to come together. We started talking about who we wanted as a director and we spoke to several people. Then Lucy Walker came in and got the job hands down. And we brought in Valerie because we needed a hot C.I.A. agent!
Q: Lucy, have you always been interested in nuclear disarmament?
Lucy Walker: Yes. I knew about duck and cover. I grew up in England and always was terrified that we'd get nuked. My big sister was marching and was a member of CND [Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament]. I saw a show about how-to-build-a-bomb shelter and was worried that we didn't have one. My dad was saying we'd need a gun to keep the neighbors out of it, and my mum said we'd need a pill to take first because we wouldn't want to be alive. What I was hearing was horrible and every child can relate--when your algebra tells you that you can destroy the world X number of times over, zero is the only quantity that is satisfying. "Never destroy the world, please. thank you very much." My terror has gone away but the underlying causes for it have not; unfortunately those threats are actually multiplying as we look into the future. That's really why we made the movie.
Q: I'm sure you were thrilled to get the chance to make a movie on this subject.
LW: I was passionate about trying to rid the world of nuclear weapons and about my filmmaking, but all of a sudden I realized I had this incredible responsibility of making this incredibly important and urgent film with this magnificent team. I wondered where my cloak was because I was a superhero saving the world from nuclear weapons singlehandedly.
So then I had to do the most massive research, a job I took so seriously. I knew we had to sort out the fact from the fiction and try to figure out the correct, accurate information that people would want to know. There are really a lot things that are misunderstood because it's such a complicated subject, so we needed to get it right so people could grasp and trust the information. I had to figure out what we needed to include and how to communicate it. What was I actually going to shoot? Initially we had a schedule that was basically "let's start shooting tomorrow." But we were applying for permissions and everyone was saying no and applying for interviews and everyone was saying no. So there was nothing to shoot. A lot of people turned us down but I'm really proud of the ones who said yes.
LB: There was only room for a certain number of interviews but we had some extraordinary interviews. Tracking down living presidents wasn't easy.
LW: Right. And the experts' experts. We were really going to the source, people whose fingers were on the button. I was calling everyone up and saying, "We're making this film with urgent information." We were able to get Valerie when I was at Los Alamos around July 4.
Q: Why would people say no?
LW: I was surprised they said yes because it's such a hard thing to talk about.
LB: I spoke the head of a big agency, who had moved elsewhere. We had a great off-the-record conversation and he said, "I have another job now, I'm not in the public eye, and I don't want to be pulled into it." That was just one person. It's not something where someone will say, "Oh, yeah, I'll tell you everything I know."
Valerie Plame Wilson: It has been more than two years since this project began. At that time we didn't have this president in office. He has given us leadership and traction. In April he pulled together 47 world leaders in Washington; he then signed the START disarmament treaty. Before him and back to the Cold War, nobody was really talking about the issue.
LB: It's not something everyone thinks about. Fortunately, the president thinks about it. It's not in the consciousness of the average citizens we show in the movie. The sword of Damocles is hanging over their heads but nobody is looking up. Our hope is that the movie will help raise this issue to the top of the political agenda. The START treaty being ratified is the beginning of a long process of many things needed to happen.
VPW: It's a good kickoff.
Q: It's interesting that reasons to be scared have increased but in middle school and high school now the idea of taking the threat of nuclear destruction seriously is quaint.
VPW: In the film, Lucy includes some man-on-the-street interviews and they range from "gee, I've never really given it any thought" to wildly, off-base estimates of the number of nuclear weapons that are out there. That thinking is international.
Q: Is the 23,000 number accurate?
LW: It was over 23,000 and now it's over 22,000. It was slightly reduced.
LB: Obama, with his promise of transparency, just released the number of nuclear weapons we have in our country and it's 5,113. In the movie we see America has 9,600, of which and a total of 4,000 are being decommissioned. Of the remaining 5,113, most are strategic and some are tactical.
LW: The good news is that number is actually coming down as we speak, so there will be even less next year.
Q: It's surprising to see in your film Ronald Reagan's efforts to eliminate nuclear weapons. It was actually personal and self-motivated with him.
LW: The transcripts have been released of the Reykjavik summit in 1986 and there were beautiful things that Reagan and Gorbachev say to each other. Their advisors freaked out and it didn't work but at least those who protested in the eighties know that their leaders heard them on this issue. Reagan tells Gorbachev, "We'll destroy all these weapons and in ten years we'll come back to Iceland and destroy the very last one together and we'll have a tremendous party around the world."
VPW: You see the profound sadness in Gorbachev's face today because they didn't achieve what they set out to do. They had that moment and failed because of forces they couldn't control.
LB: Richard Burt, who is the chief negotiator for START was against Reagan from doing that, but we see in the movie that he's come around. The Reverend Rick Cizik's says near the end of the movie that a lot of people have changed how they think because we're living in a different world now. [Cizik's says that we once thought we possessed nuclear weapons as a deterrent, but now we realize "if anyone possesses them, they will be used."] The Cold War is over and we're living in a post-9/11 world.
Q: Talk about Robert Oppenheimer, who was very troubled about his role in history.
VPW: I'm really struck by his comment in the movie about how any time you can solve a technical problem, it's sweet. He was driven by his love of his country and desire to serve it, but he also loved the challenge of figuring out how to build the bomb. How can we split the atom and do this? And then you see the sadness in his eyes because he truly recognizes what he has wrought.
LB: He was a haunted man.
LW: He understood that through using this technology 40 million people could be killed overnight. He says the only way to prevent this would be to take a screwdriver and open every container coming into the country. That was 1947 and now it's 2010 and I feel people are still catching up to what he knew and wanted to tell the world.
VPW: It was so tragic. He was stripped of his security clearances. He was caught up in McCarthyism but the problem was that he even questioned our having the bomb. He asked how we want to handle these weapons that were developed. Scientists banded together and said, "We really should internationalize this." They wanted to place this technology "under the protection" of the United Nations, but McCarythyism was on the rise, the Korean War was fought, and the Soviets exploded their first nuclear weapon and that was the end of such talk. Instead there was the witch hunt of Oppenheimer and others who dared to express their deep concerns.
LW: We got Bob McNamara's last interview. Early in his career he was pro-nuke but he really wanted us to get his new message across--and he wagged his fingers--that nations were going to be destroyed. In the old days people thought nuclear arms could serve as a deterrent but today with nuclear proliferation and terrorism going the way they're headed, these weapons, as powerful as they are, just don't keep us safe. The world is less safe with them in the world and that's such a difficult argument to get your brain wrapped around. The trip with the movie was to try to explore that strange, surprising argument that weapons are a deterrent--because weapons are more apt to be used against us.
Q: Despite the evidence about climate change in An Inconvenient Truth, people tried to discredit the message, but is there anybody who would try to discredit the message of your movie?
LW: It has nothing to do with our movie, but you should read Mitt Romney's op-ed about the START treaty, which is full of inaccuracies. Otherwise, it's amazing what a nonpartisan issue this has become, with people from across the political spectrum and the globe.
LB: There is a wide variety of people who think differently on the subject. For instance, there are people like us who think we should go to zero, and people who think we should only reduce our number. That's a big intersection. There are not a lot of people left who think we should have more.
DP: Is there a weird fringe element of anti-nuclear people?
LW: I'm one of them.
AW: I'd say the anti-nuclear group in New Mexico. When you say "weird"--they're sometimes very vociferous and go about things in unconventional ways.
VPF: When you hear criticism it's from people who say, "Nuclear arms kept us from destruction for many decades, so why should we change?" The answer is that the world has changed profoundly. We are no longer in that paradigm, we are no longer in that polar world of the United States and the Soviet Union. They miss the point of the movie, which is to not go to zero unilaterally and not to ask people to just follow our country's example. Instead, there is a highly-orchestrated, detailed plan to get to zero. I hope the movie will bring along the uninformed. Many people are still stuck in a Cold War mindset when the chances of us going to war with Russia these days is about nil. Russia is no longer the threat; it's the proliferation of nuclear weapons. The only way to provide any safety from this existential threat is to go to zero.
Q: I'm curious about your opinion on whether Truman needed to drop the bomb.
LW: I avoided that controversy all together, though it's such a fascinating topic. Because it's so important to unite people around the current threat we have that I can't afford to look back. I left all interview material on the floor regarding Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but I was really pleased we could include some footage because you can't make a film about the subject without mentioning it.
Q: Are you doing anything around August 6 or August 9?
LW: I'm doing a special screening in Salt Lake City on Hiroshima Day.
Q: Valerie, it's amazing how much your life has changed in the last couple of years.
VPF (laughing): You're not kidding.
Q: You're also in another film, Fair Game, so do you hope some of the attention for that will be re-directed toward Countdown to Zero and this topic?
VPW: I hope so! I am so delighted to be part of this project because I can use my expertise in ways that is very meaningful to me. And it has none of that partisan background noise that's I've been through, done that. So this has been a delight. All the different speakers in the movie, from all walks of life, have their own niche. I get to speak about what I did in regard to terrorism and nuclear weapons. Fair Game will be out in November and I'll be very happy if it puts more wind in the sail of this film, which I really care about. Fair Game was well-received at Cannes--none of this could I have possibly planned; everything just seem to be aligned.
Q: What is our government doing to protect our nuclear arms or the materials needed to make them?
VPW: I've seen nuclear weapons and know the type of security that is needed to get into see them. Certainly since 9/11 we've taken an even harder look and security has intensified. I can't say that about the former Soviet Republic and other places in the world, which the film addresses.
LB: The sole purpose of the president's summit in April was to secure all the nuclear materials in the world in the next four years. That's a wonderful, huge step.
LW: A load of work is being done. We don't want the risk to get bigger
Q: Valerie, how much of American espionage is centered around nuclear weapons?
VPW: Quite a bit. You might have seen the series in the Washington Post by Dana Priest on how our intelligence community is so bloated that we rely heavily on contractors. That is deeply disturbing to me. I can tell you that there are a lot of really good, smart people who are toiling anonymously on GS-11 salaries to make sure we can move around New York City without fearfully looking over our shoulders. But how do we realign and our intelligence community in the United States to be much more effective? I can talk your ear off on that.

Q: What is our government doing to protect our nuclear arms or the materials needed to make them?
VPW: I've seen nuclear weapons and know the type of security that is needed to get into see them. Certainly since 9/11 we've taken an even harder look and security has intensified. I can't say that about the former Soviet Republic and other places in the world, which the film addresses.
LB: The sole purpose of the president's summit in April was to secure all the nuclear materials in the world in the next four years. That's a wonderful, huge step.
LW: A load of work is being done. We don't want the risk to get bigger.
Q: This is such a bleak subject, but other than by raising awareness can we walk away with some hope.
LW: Yes! The president called for a world free of nuclear weapons. I feel like I dreamed that!
LB: Let's go back in history. Only a couple of decades ago there were 70,000 weapons and we're down to 23,000. There was a Nuclear Free movement that was primarily a liberal movement and that was very helpful in getting a mass reduction. Can we get to zero tomorrow? No. But many former heads of states, former military advisers, and people in power think we can go in the right direction. In Prague the president said we might not reach zero in our lifetime, but others think we can in only a couple of decades.
VPW: As bleak as its subject is, the film doesn't just dump you out. It shows how you can get there. And there is this entire social action campaign that has been built around the movie. There are and that tell you how as an individual you can do something, whether it's to petition your senator to help ratify the START treaty or to sign the global zero declaration. Just by seeing the movie and telling your friends to see the movie, you are paying attention.

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