‘Top Line’ at the Movies: Lawrence Bender on ‘Countdown to Zero’

ABC News’ Rick Klein reports: After a film about Al Gore’s PowerPoint enjoyed surprising commercial success, people began asking Oscar-winning producer Lawrence Bender to make “An Inconvenient Truth” of whatever their pet causes were.

One such suggestion led to “Countdown to Zero,” Bender’s latest documentary, about nuclear weapons. The title evokes the literal countdown to launch, and the filmmakers’ preferred outcome: a world with zero nuclear weapons.

On ABC/Washington Post’s “Top Line,” Bender told us that the idea sprung out of a discussion with Jeff Skoll, the main financial backer behind “Inconvenient Truth,” and Gore.

“We were in Oslo together with Al Gore when he was receiving the Nobel Peace Prize, and it was a very cold day. We're walking around the town, and we're thinking, ‘What else could affect life on a planetary basis like the climate crisis?’ And it was this,” Bender said. “So the three of us teamed up three years ago to make this movie.”

“And so your question was, ‘Well, how do you popularize this? How do you make this accessible to the average person?’ And you know, it's just -- I think it’s good storytelling. I think you have to find an emotional thread, find a way to draw people in.

“The movie's scary. It's an edge-of-your-seat kind of wake-up call. But it's not that we're just trying to scare people. It's just -- the truth is scary.”

Some of the most revealing scenes involve world leaders who once had their fingers over the proverbial red buttons -- Tony Blair, Jimmy Carter, Mikhail Gorbachev – who remain sobered about their former responsibilities years later. They agree that the only acceptable number of nuclear weapons is zero.

“I've heard this story about Tony Blair: When he first went into office and he was told about his responsibilities with nuclear weapons, and he went back to home that day and spent the day sort of contemplating it, all day, on his own. It's just -- it's one of those things that it's hard to understand what that really means,” Bender said.

With President Obama drawing some criticism from the right over his stated goal of eliminating nuclear weapons, the filmmakers’ use of old Ronald Reagan speeches to make their case strikes a particularly strong chord.

“If you go back and look at President Reagan's speeches, they bring you to tears almost. He makes -- and there’s one of his speeches that's in our movie. He's so eloquent and speaks about it so beautifully --it's his dream” to eliminate nuclear weapons, Bender said.

“But you know, people have actually changed the way they think about nuclear weapons now, post-Cold War, post-9/11. The threat of nuclear weapons is not so much Russia attacking the United States, China. It’s not a state-to-state -- it's obviously terrorism, it’s proliferation. It's a terrorist buying, stealing, or acquiring a scientist and actually making a nuclear bomb. And think about New York City a couple -- whenever that was, just recently. That car could have had a nuclear bomb, not firecrackers and propane.”

“And people are starting to talk about [eliminating nuclear weapons] as a direction. Certainly, we have the START treaty that's up for ratification, which is about reduction, and there's a big sort of intersection between the people who believe in zero and the people who definitely believe in reduction.”

Watch the interview with Lawrence Bender HERE .

For our “Post Politics” segment, we checked in with Perry Bacon Jr. of The Washington Post on the latest White House accomplishments – and why President Obama isn’t getting much credit for them – plus a new poll showing Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., leading his Republican opponent, Sharron Angle.

Watch that portion of “Top Line” HERE .

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