LONDON (Reuters) – While the Cold War black comedy "Dr. Strangelove" made fans squirm with its portrayal of catastrophic nuclear brinkmanship, Bruce Blair had reason to feel the cult movie missed the real risks.
As a junior U.S. officer responsible for Minuteman ballistic missiles aimed at the Soviet Union and China, Blair was worried about sloppy safeguards and the reflex obedience of those empowered to slaughter millions from the isolation of a silo.
"I remember watching 'Dr. Strangelove' and thinking, 'They have it all wrong. You don't need to be a general.' We were only lieutenants but we could have started World War Three just as easily," he says.
Decades on, Blair is an international security expert and guiding spirit in "Global Zero," the public campaign for comprehensive nuclear disarmament that found a PR tailwind in President Barack Obama's strident anti-proliferation policies.
He has ventured back into cinema as executive producer of "Countdown to Zero," which opens in Britain next week after a generally well-reviewed U.S. run last year.
"The main purpose of it, at this point, is to provide a tool in the kit-bag of our Global Zero campaign," he told Reuters ahead of the London premiere. "We need to broaden the tent."
In a breathless 89 minutes, the documentary-cum-manifesto recounts miscalculations that nearly led to nuclear launches and accidents. Animated maps stress the city-killing potency of even rudimentary atomic devices. Former statesmen and intelligence analysts appear, warning of an al Qaeda bomb that might one day be built from unregulated fissile materials on black markets.
It's no summer crowd-pleaser, despite an upbeat coda calling on viewers to send text messages to politicians with their demand for disarmament.
Though Blair says Countdown to Zero is far from recouping its cost, the recent success of serious documentaries against Hollywood fiction at the box office suggests the film, which has had extensive Web-based advertising, can bank on an audience.
NUKE JITTERS NOT NEW
The producer, Lawrence Bender, also made Al Gore's "An Inconvenient Truth," which energized the climate change debate.
Still, calls to ban the bomb date back far further -- to a 1961 speech at the United Nations by U.S. President John F. Kennedy, through to the American-Soviet detente in the 1980s -- and progress was stymied by the spread of nuclear powers since.
With India, Pakistan, North Korea and Israel ungoverned by the 1970 Non-Proliferation Treaty, and signatories Iran and Syria accused of violating the pact, conservatives ridicule Global Zero's argument that a universal dread of nuclear devastation can be translated into mutual trust and monitoring.
"I don't think it's either worthy or feasible. Why are humans going to stop lying and cheating?" said John Bolton, who served as U.S. undersecretary of state for arms control and ambassador to the United Nations under the Bush administration.
Bolton echoed Global Zero's fear of apocalyptic terrorism but said this merely bolstered the classic nuclear postures.
"Having nuclear weapons ourselves remains an important deterrent -- perhaps not against terrorists, but against state sponsors of terrorism," he said.
Blair's response, which informs Countdown to Zero, comes down to a binary logic: Nuclear ruin, whether deliberate or not, is statistically near-inevitable given the multiplicity of those having or seeking the bomb and the erosion of safeguards; that leaves no alternative but to work to eradicate all such weapons.
He outlined Global Zero's plan to encourage worldwide negotiation frameworks, with big powers taking the lead in disarming for a "domino effect" among smaller nuclear powers.
But in the absence of consensus about a process that could take a generation or more to complete, Blair looked to projects like Countdown to Zero to fuel "the growing realization that the liabilities (of nuclear weapons) outweigh the benefits."
"If we cannot muster the political commitment, then Global Zero will not succeed. But we can get a long distance down the road without solving all of these problems," he said.
(Editing by Mark Trevelyan)