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True horror at Cannes

Documentaries tell frightful tales of word affairs.

"Countdown to Zero" is about the continuing danger of nuclear weaponry in this age of terrorism.
"Countdown to Zero" is about the continuing danger of nuclear weaponry in this age of terrorism.Read moreMagnolia Pictures

CANNES, France - Horror film, thy name is documentary.

Between the financial meltdown of 2008 and the possibility of a terrorist's nuclear dirty bomb blasting an American city, Cannes last week reveled in adult horror films, a.k.a. documentaries.

Inside Job, by Charles Ferguson, is a sober primer on the 2008 financial collapse. It traces events back to the start of the deregulatory Reagan era, through the savings-and-loan collapse, through the '90s Internet bubble, the evisceration of bank regulation, the rise of Goldman Sachs, the fall of Bear Stearns and Lehman Bros., the casino era of garbage mortgages and credit default swaps.

Bobbing heads include George Soros; former Goldman Sachs CEO-turned-Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson; former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer; former Federal Reserve chairmen Paul Volcker and Alan Greenspan (the latter moving smartly up the list of devil's henchmen); as well as a host of deregulation economists at Harvard, Columbia and elsewhere earning huge corporate consulting fees; and a Wall Street madam whose services were routinely charged as "computer services."

The film, which Sony Pictures Classics will release this year, is Ferguson's first movie since 2007's No End in Sight. It won a special jury prize at Sundance for its withering look at the George W. Bush administration's plunge into Iraq. Inside Job hurtles toward the conclusion that Washington is so broken and beholden to Wall Street and conservative academicians that we're spiraling toward the next worldwide collapse - which won't be so easily bailed out.

Think that's bad? British documentarian Lucy Walker's Countdown to Zero is about the danger posed by the spread of nuclear weaponry, an issue which has slipped off the public radar since the Soviet Union turned in its Communist Party card in 1991.

Starting a nuclear war actually isn't hard, as the film impressively lays out. Any Facebook-savvy eighth grader can crack the lame James Bond-era codes and safeguards. Just hack in, dial up 12 zeros in a row and turn this little key - insert shot of a bank vault key that needs only a quarter turn to the "Launch" spot on the dial - and the planet is toast.

The film then ticks off the various false alarms over the past 50 years. The shortest and scariest? Boris Yeltsin had five minutes in 1995 to decide whether to launch a full-out response to a Russian misread of a research rocket we launched over Norway. Thank God he wasn't drunk, the film swoons.

And the yellowcake dirty bombs that al-Qaeda covets - the size of a tennis ball - are a snap to build into a detonating gun by an entry-level engineer. All a nuclear terrorist need do is get close to a city, since close is good enough.

Countdown to Zero, which started at Sundance in January, lacks a figurehead to do for nukes what Al Gore did for climate change. It has the same producer as An Inconvenient Truth, Lawrence Bender, and the support of Queen Noor of Jordan in its corner. Granted, that might not be enough to sell the public, yet more than one critic in Cannes went skeptically into it and came out betting on the film and against the planet. Magnolia Pictures will release Countdown to Zero in theaters on July 23.