If you’re alive and not spending your days wandering a blasted radioactive afterscape in search of food — and I’m pretty sure we’re all doing that this weekend only for fun with Mad Max — then you have former Soviet Lieutenant Colonel Stanislav Petrov to thank. No, I had never heard of him, either, which is a disgrace that The Man Who Saved the World attempts to remedy.
On September 26, 1983, Petrov was on duty at a Soviet military installation outside Moscow that watched the skies for incoming American nuclear missiles when alarms started blaring. They were false alarms, of course, but Petrov didn’t know that, and they could very well have been the real thing: U.S.-U.S.S.R. relations were extremely tense at the time, the Soviets having just shot down a New York-to-Seoul Korean passenger airliner that had drifted into Soviet airspace and was presumed to be spying. (That an American congressman was killed along with everyone else on the plane didn’t help matters.) This first film from Danish artist Peter Anthony combines dramatized sequences set in 1983 — Sergey Shnyryov portrays Petrov in the flashbacks — with documentary footage of Petrov in 2006, when he journeyed to the United Nations in New York City to accept an award for his bravery and the heavy price he paid for his decision to ignore military protocol and report what truly looked like an incoming nuclear strike as a computer or radar error. If he hadn’t, it would have meant global nuclear war.
The elderly Petrov, we see, is a crotchety, bitter man full of anger for how his life turned out, some of which has to do with the ironies and coincidences that led him to be working on that day in 1983 in the first place (he didn’t want to be there and shouldn’t have been). So it’s easy to believe him when he insists “I am not a hero, I was just in the right place at the right time,” because he absolutely resents that that decision at that vital moment was thrust upon him. (And it’s sort of charming, too, when, during his trip to America, he gets to meet who he considers a “great man”: Kevin Costner, his favorite actor.) As his trip begins to soften older Petrov, the tense events of that night in 1983 replay in his mind… and for us, too, of course. The coming together of the past and the present for Petrov begins to look like it will lead to a better future for him, but any comfort we might take from the end of the Cold War is snatched away from us: the threat of nuclear war, we are reminded all along the way on Petrov’s journey, remains as long as the weapons exist.
I remember the Korean airliner, and I remember being scared to death by movies like The Day After (which, bizarrely and purely coincidentally, posits its nuclear war in September 1983) and Threads. The precariousness and damn near unlikeliness that we survived the Cold War without killing off our civilization has never been better highlighted than with The Man Who Saved the World. This is an uncomfortable though moving film in many ways. It makes me wonder if other decisions like Petrov’s were made in the past and are still being made today. Bad enough if we’d killed the world through deliberate effort. But if it had been accidental? Horrifying. And it could still happen.