Folks-on-the-street interviews at the outset of the documentary "Countdown to Zero" kind of sum up the attitude of many people about nuclear weapons nowadays.
Even amid the war on terror, people admit they don't worry or even think much about nukes in a world where Cold War scenarios have been supplanted by the economic meltdown, global warming and other doomsday fears.
Then director Lucy Walker proceeds to scare the stuffing out of viewers with a thoughtful exploration into lingering dangers of nuclear disaster, whether by a rogue nation such as Iran or North Korea, a terrorist attack or some terrible accident.
The doom and gloom comes with the voice of authority. Among the dozens interviewed are Jimmy Carter, Mikhail Gorbachev, Tony Blair, former U.S. cabinet members Robert McNamara and James Baker III, and former CIA operative Valerie Plame Wilson.
"Countdown to Zero" is a solemn, professorial companion to 1982's wonderful documentary "The Atomic Cafe," a sprightly, even wacky look at the absurdities of the Cold War.
Walker, whose documentaries include the Mt. Everest chronicle "Blindsight" and the Amish teen study "Devil's Playground," touches here and there on such farcically frightening elements in our nuclear annals.
Did you know that in 1995, years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the world was on the brink of armageddon because Russia mistook a NASA-funded rocket launch to study the Northern Lights as a nuclear first strike?
The end of days was avoided, according to Walker's film, only because Russian President Boris Yeltsin was not drunk and violated his country's protocol by waiting beyond the deadline to launch a full-scale counterattack, just to be sure.
While that anecdote is alarming, much of the historical record in "Countdown to Zero" is passe, experts and former military men recalling how the fate of the planet nearly was decided by false alarms caused by a single malfunctioning computer chip or flocks of geese mistaken for bombers.
What's truly scary about the here and now of nuclear weapons is Walker's examination of the terrorist and rogue nation threat. "Countdown to Zero" opens with a segment on the prospects of terrorists acquiring fissile nuclear material, noting how easy it would be to smuggle a bomb into the United States and that Osama bin Laden's goal is to kill 4 million Americans as payback for the number of Islamic deaths he blames on U.S. policy.
The film abruptly shifts to an account of nuclear near-misses, false alarms and other accidents from Cold War days, which feels like ancient history next to the dangers of Al-Qaida obtaining uranium or plutonium to make a bomb.
"Countdown to Zero" eventually comes back to the terrorism question and offers a chilling look at current nuclear arsenals and the weapons programs of North Korea and Iran.
Yet the extensive Cold War flashbacks sometimes come off as filler alongside the terrorist menace.
The film's impact might have been even stronger and more immediate had it lingered longer and probed deeper into the perils of a world where the superpower sword of Damocles, John F. Kennedy's nuclear metaphor, has given way to daggers — small nations and groups potentially inflicting colossal disaster.