In 1983, Soviet military computers erroneously detected American missiles headed toward the USSR. Stanislav Petrov, a Soviet commanding officer at the time, had to decide whether to launch missiles in return. Going on instinct, he decided not to “retaliate,” thus averting catastrophe.
It’s the stuff angst-ridden action flicks are made of. In this multinational co-production, the real-life tale is given a sleek, hybridized telling: part documentary, part reconstructed scenes — with lines blurring between the two tacks. Director Peter Anthony’s glossy visual style gives the film a uniform look and feel that’s artfully disrupted by crackling news clips that sketch in the Cold War past and underscore nuclear nightmares still possible with Iran and North Korea (maybe not the former so much, soon).
The emotional and narrative core of the story is how much tragedy swirls through Petrov’s personal life — from his parents pushing him into the military at the age of seventeen to his marriage to the unraveling of his circumstances after his heroic decision. It is heart-wrenching stuff that you might wish the filmmakers had trusted more.
The editing and framing of the real-life Petrov, now a curmudgeonly alcoholic, often reduces him to a late-career Walter Matthau character. Both his saltiness and pathos are clunkily emphasized as he travels with a translator to the U.S. to be feted and tell his story. Petrov is such a potent figure that he survives the heavy-handedness, but he is in some ways best served by Sergey Shnyryov’s fantastic rendering of him in flashback. And while it’s cool to see Matt Damon and Robert De Niro gush over him, the mutual admiration between Petrov and Kevin Costner is genuinely touching.
The Man Who Saved the World
Directed by Peter Anthony
Light Clone Pictures
Opens September 18, Cinema Village
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on September 15, 2015