Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Counting down to nuclear disaster

After a preview screening of the new documentary Countdown to Zero, someone staggered out of the theater wondering whether it might be better to commit suicide than to face the terrible likelihood of a nuclear devastation. Should we find ourselves in a world where someone drops a bomb,unspeakable consequences surely would follow: The planet probably would be plunged into nuclear war, thereby paving the way for centuries of dystopia marked by strife, barbarism and unfathomable grief.
Obviously, Countdown to Zero -- which reminds us of the urgent need to rid the planet of the 23,000 or so nuclear bombs that languish in various parts of the globe -- is not (I repeat "not") the feel-good movie of summer, and it definitely encourages us to think about the dangers associated with the world's lingering nuclear arsenal.

The documentary alerts us to a variety of potential triggers for nuclear destruction: Terrorists commandeer a nuclear weapon; a nuclear power mistakenly begin a nuclear encounter; an accident sets off a nuclear holocaust. And we thought the end of Cold War hostilities had put some distance between us and the nuclear threat. Not so, says Countdown, taking great pains to show us why danger persists.

Written and directed by Lucy Walker and produced by Lawrence Bender -- who also produced Al Gore's Inconvenient Truth -- Countdown to Zero points to two possible paths, both suggested by its title: Either we countdown to a moment of unparalleled catastrophe or to the moment when we inhabit a nuke-free planet.

Let it be said: The filmmakers do a fine job of scaring us into attention with news footage and interviews (Tony Blair, Mikhail Gorbachev, Robert McNamara and more), as well as with the reactions of ordinary people. It's hardly surprising that most of us would prefer that humanity does not go out with a nuclear-driven bang, but it doesn't hurt to hear the position affirmed.

The most gripping part of a generally gripping movie centers on its most devastating sequence; the filmmakers show us what could happen if nuclear bombs were dropped on major cities in a sequence that's beyond sobering.

Clearly, we're a long way from Randy Newman's satirical suggestion -- "Let's drop the big one and see what happens," but Countdown to Zero has a problem that's suggested by the response of that audience member I cited at the outset.
As is the case with many advocacy documentaries, Countdown may wind up preaching to the choir. Beyond that, there's the problem of ... well ... problems. We're so flooded with issues -- from the ruptured economy to steady global warming to a failing education system -- that we run the risk of being beaten into helpless and hopeless passivity. That's probably not the response the filmmakers are seeking. Odd isn't it. Documentaries that encourage us to engage sometimes have precisely the opposite effect.

Andre Dussollier stars in Resnais' Wild Grass.
That headline is enough to justify a visit to Wild Grass, director Alain Resnais' latest movie, which fills out dance cards for those who still harbor fond memories of movies such as Mon oncle d'Amérique, Last Year at Marienbad and Hiroshima mon amour. Wild Grass finds Resnais in a somewhat playful mood as he makes a movie that wants to celebrate the ways in which cinema has changed our ideas about what's possible. Movies, to take the simplest of examples, can move us from one location to another with no need to explain exactly how the transition occurred. If that kind of magic is possible, perhaps a whole new set of human relationships could follow? Resnais' story centers on a strange man (Andre Dussollier) who finds the wallet of a dentist (Sabine Azema) in the parking lot of a shopping center. Dussollier's character brings the wallet to a local police station, but still agonizes over whether to contact the woman. When he does, he acts as if this encounter might be the most significant of his life. Resnais' use of techniques that call attention to the fact that we're watching a movie -- from irises to shifting narrations to a title card that seems to pop out of nowhere -- can seem overly quaint, but the movie passes pleasantly, if at times incomprehensibly.

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