Lt. Col. Stanislav Petrov achieved greatness in a way that no one else ever has. When the crisis that defined his life occurred, he succeeded by doing nothing.
That said, you and I are alive at this moment because this commander of a command center in the Soviet Union received a warning on September 26, 1983 that five American missiles were headed toward Mother Russia. All of the instruments on his warning system implored him to that he must tell his superiors to launch a counterstrike.
Thankfully, he did no such thing.
As the aptly-named Danish documentary The Man Who Saved the World indicates Petrov suspected that the five missiles were part of a system glitch and not a nuclear attack. For 25 hair-raising minutes, Petrov and his subordinates waited to see if the phantom missiles would reach Soviet radar cover. No one in the command center wanted to be either a mass murderer or the person who allowed millions in their own nation to die because he or she was too timid to fight back.
Had Petrov agreed with his computers and his satellite data, the Soviet Union would have made an unprovoked nuclear attack on the United States, killing hundreds of millions in both nations.
“Lt. Col. Stanislav Petrov achieved greatness in a way that no one else ever has. When the crisis that defined his life occurred, he succeeded by doing nothing…”
Danish director Peter Anthony recreates the terror of that day effortlessly. In re-enactments, Sergey Shnyryov plays a justifiably nervous Petrov, and the sense of chaos that might have resulted countless fatalities feels real. The film also captures what Petrov was like decades later when he wasn’t saving the world.
As seen in the film, he could be a cranky and combative fellow who was nearly impossible to deal with. Making appointments with him was a nightmare, and he shoos out reporters because he’d rather watch Kevin Costner movies instead of bringing up painful memories.
Curiously, these traits are probably why he’s now known as a hero instead of a jerk. The Man Who Saved The World brings up his dysfunctional upbringing. His parents seem astonishingly unimpressed about how he became a colonel, much less prevented atomic genocide. Petrov had an understandably suspicious nature, which ended up serving him well on September 26. He was suspicious of the new warning system, and his intuition served him (and us) better than hard data.
Another reason for his sour disposition can be the fact that his judgement wasn’t rewarded until many years later. When he meets with the guide at a missile site in the United States, his sour disposition could be due to the fact that unlike the guide, he knows that the silo he’s now visiting almost launched its lethal payload.
If Petrov can be irritable, The Man Who Saved The World reveals he can just as easily be endearing. Even as he’s getting praised by luminaries like Robert De Niro and Walter Cronkite, Petrov is remarkably modest about having prevented countless deaths.
It’s also charming to discover he can be a gushy fanboy.
“He was suspicious of the new warning system, and his intuition served him…”
Toward the end of The Man Who Saved The World, the Colonel finally gets to meet his idol. When the real hero shakes Costner, the two naturally hit it off, but the exchange is more than simple adulation. If Costner seemed like a deer in the headlights in Madonna: Truth or Dare, he more than atones for it here. He asks Petrov thoughtful, relevant questions and does a terrific job of explaining to viewers how close both of our nations came to destruction.
The Man Who Saved the World received a tepid release when it played here in the States in 2014. I watched the the film in hopes of reviewing it, but it never opened in any of the markets where my outlets were. While the DVD is available for purchase, it’s not available for streaming on Amazon, Netflix or Hulu. Petrov recently died at the age of 77, and his legacy shouldn’t be forgotten. While his restraint allowed him to leave this world with honor, his story and this documentary deserve far more attention if we want to prevent the destruction he almost unleashed.
The Man Who Saved The World (2014) Directed by Peter Anthony. Written by Peter Anthony. Starring Stanislav Petrov, Kevin Costner, Sergey Shnyryov, Walter Cronkite, Robert De Niro, Ashton Kutcher
8 out of 10