Nuclear weapons: a political strike on the big screen

Producers of 'Countdown to Zero,' a docudrama about the dangers of nuclear weapons, hope it will boost the cause of disarmament the way 'An Inconvenient Truth' did global warming.

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    The movie ‘Countdown to Zero,’ intended to warn about the dangers of nuclear weapons, says a tennis ball-size object could wreak havoc in a city like New York. The docudrama, to be released in July, depicts a nuclear event that one reviewer says will ‘scare the breath out’ of audiences.
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When Hollywood producer Lawrence Bender put out Al Gore's film, "An Inconvenient Truth," he had no idea it would so strongly hit the public zeitgeist on climate change. Now he is preparing to release in July a different kind of apocalyptic docudrama – depicting a nuclear event.

"Countdown to Zero" is designed to counter the idea that the threat of a nuclear catastrophe has receded because of the end of the cold war. Screened at the Sundance Film Festival, the movie left audiences abuzz.

Mr. Bender, whose work ranges from the elegiac "Good Will Hunting," to the postmodern "Pulp Fiction" and "Kill Bill" series, part of his collaboration with Quentin Tarantino, says that after "An Inconvenient Truth" he got lobbied by every kind of social-action group. All wanted their message on film. It was a bit overwhelming. So Bender stepped back to ask himself what he should do next.

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IN PICTURES: Nuclear Weapons

"What is the most important issue facing mankind? Well, one is global warming," Bender says by phone from his Wilshire offices in Los Angeles. "The other is a nuclear event, whether by accident or by terrorism, that would be devastating on a global scale."

One Sundance reviewer, John Anderson, writes: "A kind of suicide hotline for a rogue-nuke world, [the film] boasts a cast of international superstars – Jimmy Carter, Mikhail Gorbachev, Pervez Musharraf, Tony Blair – and a convincing argument that the human race is on borrowed time: Given the number of nuclear weapons in existence, the ease with which they can be made, the eagerness of terrorists to possess them and a worldwide cluelessness about nuclear security, it's only a matter of time before something terribly ugly happens. A politically urgent picture, it will also literally scare the breath out of ... a worldwide audience."

Bender insists the film is more a wake-up call: "It's not the main intent to just scare people. But the information is scary. We've tried to thread that needle ... make it an entertaining story, but one that shocks, and offers a type of education that creates a desire to act."

A south Jersey kid who remembers getting on buses with his parents to march against the Vietnam War in Washington, Bender says he lost some civic spirit in the dream world of Hollywood. That changed when he got invited to Camp David to screen "Good Will Hunting" for President Clinton, National Security Adviser Sandy Berger, and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.

"It was a light-bulb moment.... The atmosphere was inspiring ... these people were making a difference in what they were doing and how they were living." He felt a great desire for service, and, since then, has been "making more conscious decisions to affect the greater good."

Bender turned his Hollywood home into an exchange zone for film and public affairs, then took on the Gore documentary. If global warming is a long-term threat, the nuclear threat is something "more immediate," he says. He buys into President Obama's call in Prague, Czech Republic, for a nuclear-free world, but says "Countdown" wasn't timed for a Washington summit this month to control the spread of nuclear materials, or a May renegotiation of the Non-Proliferation Treaty. It just happened.

College students are a main audience. "For them the cold war is over," he says. "The wall came down when they were 10. The cold war is not built into them genetically the way it was for us. We used to get under desks in school!

"We made the movie to warn people that the nuclear threat is now more dangerous than during the cold war. We are in a landmark moment."

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