Film Review: The Man Who Saved the World

This gripping documentary tells the story of the man who didn't start World War III, Lt. Colonel Stanislav Petrov, whose story seems too perfectly structured to be true but nevertheless is.
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Even clichés are true some of the time, a thought that comes to mind frequently during Danish director Peter Anthony's documentary about Lt. Colonel Stanislav Petrov, who, in 1983, was the senior officer on duty at the USSR's main nuclear command post when a the system started shrieking that multiple American missiles were en route. The protocol—a protocol Petrov helped devise–was clear and unambiguous: Launch a retaliatory strike. Petrov didn't, betting on his hunch that the alerts were caused by a glitch in the system.

Petrov proves a difficult subject: Bitter, angry, aggressive, curt and misanthropic. It's hard at first not to wonder why, since he appears to hate just about everyone so much, he didn't just let the missiles fly. But over the course of the film, as he and his translator undertake an ill-defined cross-country trip, film crew in tow, a less off-putting side of the man who—when honored at the United Nations for his actions, brusquely says that he's not a hero, he was just at the right place at the right time—emerges as he tells his story, much of it directed to Galina Kalinina, the young translator who bears the brunt of many of his outbursts. He's so initially nasty to her early on that the friend with whom she commiserates by phone recommends punching him in the mouth.

Perhaps the fact that a little of Petrov goes a long way is the reason Anthony decided to break up his monologue with reenactments of the events leading up to his unsung moment of glory, a problematic one in that recreations of events for which no archival footage exists invariably raise questions about authenticity. That said, they're shot, designed and acted beautifully (Sergey Shnyryov is a standout as the younger Petrov), often looking like the color version of Dr. Strangelove Stanley Kubrick didn't make. Meanwhile, the details of the duly-documented modern-day trip verge on the surreal, as Petrov stops off at target ranges, missile silos, the 9/11 memorial and Kevin Costner's house; he also pays visits to Matt Damon, Robert De Niro, Walter Cronkite and Ashton Kutcher.

The Man Who Saved the World is first and foremost an idiosyncratic portrait of a man whose life went to hell after he did the planet a major favor–the Soviet government hushed up his actions, his wife died a long death from cancer and he descended into alcoholic loneliness–only to find himself lauded decades later. But it's also a primer on late Cold-War jitters, the price of high-stakes saber-rattling on a global scale and the horrifying power of nuclear weapons, whose continued stockpiling Petrov deplores because, he says, as long as they exist, so does the possibility that someone will use them. Asked if he really thinks that will happen, he soberly replies, "Of course it will happen someday." Pessimism about world peace is cheap, but Petrov earned his.

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