No medium of propaganda is as powerful and effective as film. Think of the classics, the most notorious efforts to to sway the public with the electrifying and collective passion of cinema: racial apartheid was justified in the US with Birth of a Nation. The Soviets glorified their revolution with the Battleship Potemkin. Then there was Triumph of the Will.
A typical propaganda film tugs at emotions and invokes fears. It invokes dark threats to “the people,” and it offers up solutions extolling state and corporate power. Unlike a political documentary it will not criticize the state or corporation. Instead it will celebrate great men as our leaders and saviors. Distinct from a run-of-the-mill political documentary, a propaganda film butchers the complexity and contradictions that permeate politics and real life, presenting things in simplistic moral terms. Functionally, propaganda is mobilized to secure popular support for a primary, often hidden agenda that is not apparent in the film’s narrative. Propaganda is a tool used by elites to secure the consent of the masses, and channel their anxieties.
Now hitting theaters is one of the most dangerous propaganda films produced in decades. Countdown to Zero “traces the history of the atomic bomb from its origins to the present state of global affairs.” A promotional blurb on the film’s web site claims that it “makes a compelling case for worldwide nuclear disarmament, an issue more topical than ever with the Obama administration working to revive this goal today.”
Before I go any further in explaining Countdown as a propaganda film I should note that note all propaganda need not be the product of a secretive and manipulative council of elites behind some curtain. Instead, the many contributors to Countdown and its promotional efforts have different motivations and intentions. What makes this film a coherent piece of propaganda is its medium, style, and likely effects on the US political climate. There are powerful actors who will use it for nefarious ends.