Friday, July 30, 2010

Countdown to Zero (movie review)

This movie is in the process of making it's debut across the land. Physicians for Social Responsibility was giving out free tickets (one of which had my name on it). One wonders if it'll hit the ground running. Unlike a Michael Moore film, it lacks much comic relief, other than the excerpt from Dr. Strangelove. However, the production values are high and many of the latest cinematic techniques are exploited to good advantage.

There's some Philip Glassy type music with slow and fast motion, reminiscent of the Qatsi films and Why We Fight. The weapons-based culture is endlessly eerie and ominous, that underworld or Hades that kills and maims for a living. The root meaning of "terrorism" is deeply rooted in this dystopian (sinful) Hell. Appropriately, one of the previews was for the horror movie (Rec 2) showing later in the same theater.

Count Down to Zero is a quick tour of the dark side, wherein exhausted, suddenly awakened, and/or possibly intoxicated world leaders have only minutes to decide the fate of an entire planet. Surrealism runs high. Every day is another 911, an ongoing debacle somewhere on Spaceship Earth. The energy spent on feeding the planet's "killingry addiction" sets up the conditions for nightmare prophesies to become self-fulfilling, as humans "eat their own dog food" (i.e. reap what they sow).

Subtract the nuclear weapons part (which is unfair, as that's the whole point) and one gets some interesting views of the global ecosystem (economy), with its huge container ships and their amazing docking facilities (the interface to trucking and freight trains). We get lots of ariel views of cities (like on Google Earth), other reminders of our shared cosmopolitan existence (Times Square, other tourist destinations).

The film reminded me of a James Bond movie in that sense i.e. it's designed for a global audience and comes across as "worldly" (even if surreal).

The audience is also being conditioned to accept that surveillance cameras are everywhere, taking us all in. Much of the film plays with this theme of the omniscient voyeur, the anxious eye in the sky, in the subways, looking nervously at backpacks, wondering if they really contain bombs or lead canisters of HEU (highly enriched uranium).

Some of the historical footage seemed in the hard-to-find or rarely seen category, with an assorted selection of exotic talking heads telling esoteric stories about actual catastrophes and/or near misses, flirts with mass death: NORAD goes nuts on a training tape; Yeltsin is faced with pushing "the button" after the Americans fumble the football yet again (with excuses); a stray computer chip starts sending the wrong signals... the list goes on and on (nukes lost overboard, nukes crash in farmer's field...). There's no mention of the "hot line" -- not clear that's believed in anymore (1950s technology).

Speaking of oo7 (Bond), the film is top heavy with spooky CIA types, with Valerie Plame Wilson leading the pack as our anchoring narrator. The physicists seem to all come from Princeton (my alma mater as well), plus there's this Harvard dude (no Yale?). Countdown to Zero is somewhat antidisestablishmentarian in flavor, meaning you're allowed to like it and agree with it even if you're an avid right winger supporting those whom you imagine are running the show (what establishmentarians do for a living).

There are no John Lennon types among the talking heads (disestablishmentarians) although Linus Pauling is shown briefly. The film's aim is to get "we the people" up in arms again, about how ultra-stupidly managed we all are. It's a green light from the authorities to the dutiful rank and file, like "OK you can get upset now" (like the applause light in a game show TV studio). Some in our audience felt patronized, you could tell from the subsequent Q&A.

Even the suits are against nukes. They're hoping more activists will pick up the ball and run with it, because without political pressure, the status quo idiocracy will prevail.

Many of our Portland-based activists were at this premier at Cinema 21, which included a short panel discussion at the end, with mom one of the panelists. She spoke encouragingly of some victories in the 1960s, such as countering the bomb shelter duck and cover craze (so-called Civil Defense), and getting a comprehensive ban on atmospheric testing. Women were in the forefront of that movement, whereas the guys were mostly in "go along to get along" mode (except Pauling, a few other heroes).

The Nussbaums were in the audience, and we compared notes on the sidewalk after the showing, as mom and the PSR director were getting interviewed for a KBOO youth program (Underground).

Another of the panelists was a well-known and respected Iranian activist about town. Although not a fan of the current Iranian administration, he wasn't happy with Plame's axiom that Iran's self evident core strategy was to gain access to the nuclear club, thereby redundantly adding to the 23K arsenal of weapons of mass suicide. The US is always pointing the finger, finding fault with everyone but itself, is/was a prevailing criticism of this film.

What if Iran's plan were to expose nuclear club members as hypocritical, to prove technical prowess without incurring the loss of prestige and credibility associated with being a bully-sociopath -- which is more how the US is coming across these days (a Great Satan), as a front for organized war criminals (working hand in glove with organized religion in many cases).

The idea of an Islamic state leading a jihad to criminalize nuclear weapons, with no exceptions, even while building advanced civilian nuclear power plants, is too far-fetched a plot for most American moviegoers though. The party line in the US is that Iran is out to get even with Israel (in terms of building a nuclear arsenal), not to shame the latter into going along with the Nuclear Free Zone concept ("nuclear free" w/r to weapons, not w/r to electromagnetic power necessarily).

Given the vast majority of nations are still free of enslavement to the global nuke weapon trafficking syndicates (masquerading behind the iconography of sovereign statehood) it's little wonder that many humans long for "the good old days" they claim to remember, when the threat of mass extinction was less of a clear and present danger.

On the other hand, once the nuclear equations start changing, more conventional weaponry needs to be looked at as well, as likewise criminally cruel. Smaller nations cling to nukes as a counter to superpower bullying from New Rome (aka Washington, DC). They want some respect, as Pervez Musharaff makes clear (lots of Pakistanis are "dancing in the streets" in this film, jubilant that now their voice must be heard).

If "little countries" (like North Korea -- mentioned a few times) can't boast of big bombs, will they be occupied and overwhelmed, stripped of resources by those with an overwhelming advantage in conventional weaponry? Look what happened in Tibet (where the director of this film has done another documentary). This movie has little time to address these concerns directly -- perhaps the spawned study groups and teach-ins will address them?

I'd say there's a longstanding and not-so-subtle propensity within the intelligence community (as evidenced by this film) to semi-secretly despise outward weaponry of any kind, as the last and/or first resort of the fraudulently phony and/or unintelligent.

Ian Flemming's concept of "spy as gun toter" has been far more convenient for Hollywood though, in building on expertise inherited from the Wild West shoot 'em up genre. So much of USA culture is about gun play machismo (a flavor of homo-eroticism in many cases).

Still, the "real men don't tote firearms" prejudice runs pretty strongly in more rarefied circles (ala John le Carré), which is maybe why women still make better spies and diplomats (much as they're encouraged to dumb themselves down, to be more like the XYs).