Doc aims to land in middle of summer arms treaty debates

Among all the thrillers and chillers destined for the multiplex this summer, there’s little doubt as to which movie should scare the wits out of audiences across the board: “Countdown to Zero.”

And it’s not just because it makes discerning use of talking heads and liberal use of footage of scary missile launches and mushroom clouds — all with the intent of sounding the alarm on the threat of nuclear proliferation, via loose nukes falling into the heads of terrorists or being set off by mistake.

It’s also producer Lawrence Bender and Participant Media’s next effort to instill in the public a sense of urgency, having already done so with global warming in 2006 with “An Inconvenient Truth.”

Both movies tackle topics that the public has had a difficult time comprehending, or finds too daunting to even want to understand.

The difference this time around is a matter of timing: The movie’s July 9 release by Magnolia Pictures may land it right in the midst of Senate consideration of a new START treaty, signed in April by President Obama and Russian president Dmitry Medvedev.

Although arms control pacts have a history of bipartisan support, this is not any normal year when it comes to the level of political rancor, and the pact already has its share of detractors.

On that account, Bender is explicit in what he sees as one of the initial goals of the pic.

“It could not be better timing, because now that the president has signed this, the Senate needs to ratify it,” Bender says. He hopes the pic’s release and publicity around it creates “a wind behind the president’s back to help get this ratified.”

The movie, directed by Lucy Walker, had little trouble drawing attention earlier this month when it was screened in Washington before lawmakers, foreign policy experts and media types. Just days after the D.C. screening, Obama gathered 47 world leaders in the U.S. capital for a summit on nuclear security.

“When we released ‘An Inconvenient Truth,’ we had an administration, to put it mildly, that was not in lockstep with the movie, but the movie still made a huge impact,” Bender says. “Today we have a president who is way out on this issue and has taken a personal lead.”

The bigger question is whether the summer moviegoing audience, which is heavy on teens and twentysomethings not even born after the Cold War ended, will identify with the doc, no matter that the issue is on the front page.Several months ago, at Universal City Walk, a number of politicos and elder statesmen — among them former Secretary of State George Shultz, former Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) and former Secretary of Defense William Perry — turned out for the debut of a shorter documentary called “Nuclear Tipping Point,” with a similar theme of the threat of rogue weapons and dirty bombs. With financing by Ted Turner, the film has earned the attention of academics and media types, and was screened several weeks ago by Obama at the White House.

California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said in introducing the movie at Universal, “What we are trying to do is create a movement.”

But despite the heavyweights behind it, the pic hasn’t got anything near the kind of push that “Truth” did.

“Countdown to Zero” features world leaders — Jimmy Carter, Mikhail Gorbachev, Pervez Musharraf and Tony Blair, among others — but after its debut at Sundance, critics said its imagery, combined with rock music in the score, makes it unique. Already, some 350,000 people have signed a petition on Participant’s Take Part website urging an agreement among all nations to eliminate nuclear weapons. The goal is to get to 1 million signatures in the next few months. Next month, it gets a high-profile special screening berth at the Cannes Film Festival, a coup that will generate loads of international press. Another measurement of success also may be to get the issue into the kitchen table conversation, in the way that it was during the “Duck and Cover” era of the 1950s and 60s and the No Nukes period of the early 1980s. “We are taking the same trajectory as ‘An Incovenient Truth,’ ” Bender says. “If we do our job, and we market this correctly, this movie could change the course of the world by getting public sentiment out there, by getting the public to urge their senators to ratify the arms control treaty.”

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