film review

The man who saved the world

by Alex Feinberg
Country Denmark
Language English, Russian
Directed by Peter Anthony
Produced by Jakob Staberg
Written by Peter Anthony
Starring Stanislav Petrov, Sergey Shnyryov

Stanislav Petrov is an unlikely fit for a superhero. Or even a hero. In fact, though Petrov saved the world in 1983, the documentary film The Man Who Saved the World (2014) is more about rescuing Petrov from his problems than the incident that made him famous.

We meet Petrov in his squalid apartment on the outskirts of Moscow. The grumpy old man is preparing for the arrival of an English journalist. When the Brit brings up the subject of Petrov's mother, Petrov promptly curses him out. This man, we quickly learn, has issues.

Clearly, Petrov needs a dose of self-discovery, preferably involving a long journey, a woman, and a meeting with a personal hero. This is exactly what we get from the film with a road-trip across the America with his translator Galina, from New York to the Dakotas to visit his favorite actor and role-model Kevin Costner. It is 2006 and Petrov has just been invited to New York to receive an award at the United Nations. The award, we we learn through a series of flashbacks, is for his role in preventing a nuclear war between Russia and the United States.

Petrov is sitting in a bunker outside of Moscow, whiling away the time until his night shift ends and he can go home. In the middle of an inappropriate joke from one of his subordinates, an alarm sounds, indicating a missile attack from the United States. Petrov jumps into action and starts issuing commands. According to protocol, he should alert his superiors so they can launch a counter-attack, but he realizes that millions will be killed if he picks up the red telephone in front of him. Instead, he reports that it is a false alarm, although the engineers keep repeating to him that there is a 100 percent level of confidence that American missiles are on their way. Finally, we realize that it was all a very unfortunate glitch in the system, and thus Petrov becomes the man who saved the world.

'I am not a hero. I was just at the right place at the right time'.

From the United Nations headquarters the film follows Petrov 3000 kilometers to Kevin Costner's trailer. The trip is brought alive by the relationship between him and Galina. Petrov is deeply suspicious of other people and constantly on guard, even believing that the group giving him the award is trying to cheat him, and he is not particularly open to sharing details about his life. Galina becomes our window into Stanislav, and he relates to her all the details about the incident in 1983, the death of his wife, and his fraught relationship with his mother.

I had the privilege of seeing The Man Who Saved the World with the Moscow TImes Club at the Documentary Film Center. After the film we migrated to the adjacent cafe and discussed the movie over cabernet. As regarding the movie, we were all a little unclear about how much the film deserves to be called "documentary." Rather than show Petrov and a series of experts being interviewed along with photographs of Brezhnev and Reagan, Petrov plays himself in the drama of his pilgrimage to Kevin Costner. Marie Lipikhina, one of the organizers of the event, recognized the Hollywood influence in the film.

Though it might not fit neatly into its stated genre, the earnestness with which it was filmed speaks to its documentary intent. More people need to know about how close to mutual destruction we came, or else we will never be able to avoid a nuclear war.

In a scene at a missle silo, which Petrov insists they stop at, Petrov and a park ranger have a reckoning over the brainwashing that both Russians and Americans experienced during the cold war. Petrov shouts at the ranger at the suggestion that the USSR would have ever considered a first strike against the United States. "We need to forget about the cold war," he warns. When the ranger asks him if he thinks that nuclear weapons will ever be used again in war, Petrov says that he does.

Anna Vecher, another Moscow Times Club frequenter, apparently took Petrov's message seriously. She was grateful that the movie reminded her that "the world can end at any moment, so we need to value what we have." Hopefully, those of us with nuclear buttons will be reasonable enough not to make that come to pass, and we will be able to enjoy many more wonderful evenings at the Moscow Times Clubs.

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