Accidental nuclear attacks have been the stuff of high-tech thrillers for a half-century, at least since “Fail-Safe” (1964). But this apocalyptic fiction almost became fact in 1983, averted only by the doubts of a single Soviet Union officer.
As vividly portrayed in Peter Anthony’s “The Man Who Saved the World,” Lt. Col. Stanislav Petrov was in charge of the Soviet early warning systems overnight on Sept. 26, 1983. Computerized satellites detected first one, then other launches — five in all — of nuclear missiles by the United States. But there was no visual confirmation, and Colonel Petrov decided to tell his superiors they were false alarms, despite being required to report these “maximum verifications.” Had he followed protocol, retaliatory strikes would surely have followed, triggering an American response in kind and mutually assured destruction.
Somewhat clumsily, this hybrid documentary blends re-enactments of those and other events with Mr. Petrov’s real-life trip to the United States in 2006 to accept an award from the United Nations. Mr. Petrov is a secretive, unlikable old pensioner, who softens over time in the presence of his young interpreter and in meetings with Walter Cronkite, Robert De Niro and Kevin Costner. Depicting Mr. Petrov’s bleak life since the death of his wife, the film reflects on the links each individual has, willingly or not, to the rest of humanity. “I was just at the right place at the right time,” Mr. Petrov says, a simple truth that becomes shocking when considering the alternative. For that alone, this account of a Cold War near miss deserves a wide audience.