I feel like a glutton for punishment, but I also can't just avoid the documentaries that depress me. That would leave me with a very limited amount of films to focus on in this column. And it's not my fault the non-fiction film world is so concentrated on doomsday subject matter lately. Maybe I shouldn't have seen Countdown to Zero in a theater on West 42nd Street, but how was I to know a movie about nuclear bombs would continually show satellite images of New York City in order to show the scope of destruction from such a weapon detonated in Times Square?
Would I have been better off watching a screener of Lucy Walker's acclaimed doc from my apartment, located in a part of Brooklyn just barely outside the blast circumference? No, I'm sure I would still have teared up when I did. Watching a montage of real routine city life presented along with that satellite image, I couldn't help but think of similar sequences in Michael Bay and Roland Emmerich movies just prior to the disaster-as-spectacle moments. Unlike with Armageddon or 2012, though, the suspense from Countdown to Zero is not relieved so quickly with effects-heavy destructoporn. Instead we're left wondering when a real disaster will happen. And from what I gather from the film, it will happen.
Or, maybe the effects of global warming will beat a nuclear attack to the devastating punch. That's the focus of this week's other gloomy film, Franny Armstrong's The Age of Stupid, which is actually not as depressing as it could have been. I had hoped to take a look at a third doc this week, preferably something more cheery like Leon Gast's Smash His Camera, about legendary paparazzo Ron Galella. Hopefully we can talk about that one next week along with any other films not about the end of the world (which some people currently seriously believe will happen on May 21, 2011). Maybe it will be the tradition of this column to alternate on a bi-weekly basis between downer docs and uplifting films?
Countdown to Zero
Lucy Walker has attracted an impressive crop of interview subjects for this look at the history and current status of atomic weapons and the nuclear arms race. Former world leaders such as Mikhail Gorbachev, Tony Blair, F.W. de Klerk and Jimmy Carter join other prominent political figures like Robert McNamara, experts such as Valerie Plame Wilson and one guy who used to be one of the "minutemen" put in charge of the launch of nuclear missiles if ever the time came. And most of them seem pretty sad and disappointed with the way things have turned out in spite of the dominating good fortune that there has not been a nuclear attack of any kind since the end of World War II.
The gloom comes not with the look at the past so much as foreseeing the likelihood of nuclear destruction in the future. Someone in the film points out that even though it's a low probability, there is some chance. And low probability things do happen all the time. Unless there is zero chance, it doesn't really matter if the chance is high or low. We're also reminded that accidents can and will happen. Many accidents involving nukes in the past are highlighted with amazement that none were deadly. So maybe that next one...
One thing I found both fascinating and frightening about the doc is how much it reminds me of a loss prevention video shown to new employees of a retail outlet. Walker shows how easy it is and has been to smuggle uranium out of Russia and how easy it is to get the substance through airport security and addresses the ease of building bombs. It's like when my first ever employer, Staples showed me instructional films on how exactly to steal from a Staples...in order to prevent such theft but of course it also aids any employee or ex-employee wishing to actually be a crook him or herself.
So I'm a bit concerned with how much I and others now know about the ease of committing nuclear terrorism. Even if the info is already public knowledge and out there for terrorists to access. But Countdown to Zero may have a silver lining in that it reminds us that in 65 years we've managed to be lucky. Maybe some of that luck is because the world is not as evil as we think it is. Then again, maybe the film is more a reminder that it's not that evil yet.
The Age of Stupid
There's a novel structure to Franny Armstrong's new doc, which was available online the past couple weeks as part of SnagFilms' SummerFest series. It takes place in 2055 and features actor Pete Postlethwaite as an archivist presenting a look at the past (our present) to show where humanity went wrong in fighting global warming. He does this while sitting in front of a touchscreen monitor similar to the computer in Minority Report, picking out little snippets of news clips and documentary footage a man talking about the melting of glaciers in the Alps, the detrimental increase in discount airlines, a green family in England whose patriarch also runs a windmill company, a Hurricane Katrina hero, an African woman affected by the oil industry and other related stories.
The unfortunate thing is that the gimmick of the structure may take a way some of the seriousness of the issue. Also, the way Postlethwaite's character shuffles through the "files" makes more of a case that attention spans are even less in 2055 than today than it does help the environmentalism cause. Meanwhile, I was also excited for this future in which there's a computer system that has access to pretty much any media ever produced. As much as it was scary watching Countdown to Zero near Times Square, it was totally fitting watching The Age of Stupid streaming on the web.
Although I don't believe this particular film is a total success, I would love to see more documentary filmmakers trying new ways to present information and stories. There are tons of global warming docs, good and bad, and this one managed to get my attention because of its sci-fi element. And I still came away having learned what it was teaching and enjoyed watching Postlethwaite in a slightly more mobile role than he has as the bedridden father in Inception. Also, I loved Jonathan Hodgson's animation segments, which is a big deal since I've really been growing tired of flashy animated sequences in documentaries. If you want to see an original take on non-fiction film, definitely seek this out.