Jolie's 'Salt' and Walker's 'Countdown to Zero' bring heat to Cold War stories

By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 23, 2010; C01

It's 2010, and the Cold War has never been hotter.

Piper Perabo is brushing up on her Russian in the cable series "Covert Affairs." The movie "Farewell," a fictionalized version of the career of Vladimir Vetrov, a KGB spy who squirreled state secrets out of Russia in the 1980s, is scheduled to open in Washington next week. The recent sleeper spy story, by turns jaw-dropping and reassuringly benign, wound up providing welcome credibility cover for this week's summer Cold War throwback: "Salt," a swift, frenetic action thriller starring Angelina Jolie. In this stylish and absurdly violent kick in the keister, Jolie assumes myriad disguises and punches way above her weight as a CIA agent accused of being a Russian sleeper spy -- a notion so alien when Kurt Wimmer first wrote the film that, for years, it languished in studio outboxes.

Even after "Salt" was green-lighted, its producers enlisted no less august a team than former Central Intelligence director R. James Woolsey and former homeland security secretary Tom Ridge to help market the movie and to pre-empt the inevitable criticism that "Salt's" plot is either hopelessly dated or risibly improbable. (The Washington endorsement suggests another mystery: How does a studio persuade the Justice Department and FBI to prolong a decade-long investigation until a few weeks before your movie comes out?)

It's true that, without current fortuitous events to back up its premise, "Salt" most likely would have been laughed out of theaters in its first five minutes, with its Russians scheming to spark World War III by giving long-dormant agents in America their cue. It would have seemed so quaint! So retro! So Boris and Natasha!

Instead, that story line gives "Salt" timely zing and arresting realism amid otherwise over-the-top -- and utterly enjoyable -- whiz-bang action. As the title character, Evelyn Salt, Jolie slips comfortably into her full-contact comfort zone, performing all manner of impossible stunts with the insolent flair and part-glam, part-glowering game face that has come to define her. As channeled by Jolie's loose-limbed assurance, Salt is a woman who can bring home the bacon, fry it up in a pan and, with a few ingredients from the pantry, turn the pan into an armed surface-to-air missile in less than 90 seconds.

Running through Washington in her bare feet, scaling a brick wall and diving on to a semi truck from a highway overpass, Jolie gives even the film's most outrageous set pieces an air of seriousness and focus. Underneath all the adrenaline lies a performance that, in its layers of deceptions and motivations, may be one of the actress's most deceptively complex.

"Salt's" punchy combination of credible tradecraft and "Die Hard" bombast make it that rare summer diversion that delivers lots of escapist whammies without insulting the audience. Credit for this surely belongs to director Phillip Noyce ("Clear and Present Danger," "The Quiet American"), who knows his way around both pyrotechnics and a smart, taut thriller.

But however timely it's turned out to be, "Salt's" portrait of conflicts between Russia and America still feels almost as comfortingly archaic as the low-tech pods in "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" or Angela Lansbury's hemlines in "The Manchurian Candidate." Oddly enough, if the filmmakers really wanted "Salt" to feel of-the-moment, they could have introduced yet another seemingly old-fashioned element: nuclear armageddon.

That plot twist may be more plausible than we think, according to the lucid and compelling documentary "Countdown to Zero." This lively primer in history, policy, physics and black-market economics offers chillingly persuasive evidence that the nuclear threat is not only still with us, but it's more volatile than ever -- with much of the danger emanating from Russia and its vicinity. Taking John F. Kennedy's 1961 description of a "nuclear sword of Damocles . . . capable of being cut at any moment by accident or miscalculation or by madness," director Lucy Walker proceeds to demonstrate how close we've come to all three scenarios from Strangelove-ian near-misses involving a malfunctioning computer chip or an errant flock of geese.

With superb editing and a moody, menacing musical score, Walker infuses "Countdown to Zero" with surprising energy and emotion. True, the filmmaker hews to the well-worn formula of archival material-plus-talking heads. But those talking heads are pretty impressive -- Mikhail Gorbachev, Jimmy Carter, James Baker, the late Robert McNamara, to name just a few. And Walker expertly interweaves those sequences with anonymous on-the-street interviews and surveillance footage of public places to raise the issue's human stakes and to underline just how naive and vulnerable we really are.

But vulnerable to whom? As former CIA operations officer Valerie Plame Wilson explains, there's no question that al-Qaeda is seeking a nuclear weapon. Even more terrifying, "Countdown to Zero" forecasts the equally probable scenario of a weapon being stolen, built or purchased by way of an invisible, uncoordinated network of freelancers and mercenaries. At one point Walker interviews the imprisoned Oleg Khintsagov, who explains that he sought to sell nuclear material to al-Qaeda not because of ideology but because he needed new kitchen appliances.

The threat, in other words, no longer lies in age-old superpower showdowns, with their ritualized arguments and old-is-new spy-swaps on tarmacs. Instead, the danger lies in a generation brought up, not as young Communists but as aspiring oligarchs -- Cold Hard Cash Warriors. Their adversaries, meanwhile, are likely to inhabit a sprawling, privatized security complex -- brilliantly deconstructed by Dana Priest and William Arkin in this week's Post -- that has assumed an ever-greater role in intelligence gathering and analysis, with all the redundancy, unaccountability and bloat of any burgeoning bureaucracy. If, as one analyst in "Countdown to Zero" puts it, "complexity is the enemy of reliability," then ours may be the most unreliable system imaginable.

Fortunately, "Countdown to Zero" doesn't end on that dour note. Indeed, it offers a bracing solution to the many troubling questions it raises by inviting viewers to sign on to the Global Zero campaign to eliminate nuclear weapons -- much like "An Inconvenient Truth" prodded audiences to support efforts to end climate change. (Both films come from activist film company Participant Media.)

"Countdown to Zero" may have a political agenda, but by the film's moving conclusion, that agenda seems not only supremely logical and refreshingly bipartisan but actually within reach. As this cinematic call to action makes clear, contemplating the alternative is enough to keep even the soundest sleeper up at night.

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