'The Man Who Saved the World': Film Review

Courtesy of Statement Film
This powerful true-life story suffers from the bizarre manner in which it is related.

Peter Anthony's hybrid of documentary and docudrama recounts the tale of the Soviet military officer who single-handedly averted nuclear catastrophe.

If you were alive in 1983, you came very close to dying without even knowing it. Such is the gripping premise of The Man Who Saved the World, Peter Anthony's film about Stanislav Petrov, a Soviet military officer who was faced with a computer alarm indicating that five nuclear missiles were racing toward his country. Instead of obeying the protocol calling for retaliation, he chose to trust his instinct that it was a false alarm. He single-handedly prevented a worldwide catastrophe, only to see his life fall apart in the years that followed.

It's a powerful and surprisingly little-known tale, but the filmmaker has done it a disservice by telling it in a bizarre mixture of documentary, docudrama, and, well, staged documentary. The results careen wildly between dramatically compelling and hopelessly hokey.

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We're first introduced to the elderly, real-life Petrov in 2006, an embittered alcoholic widower living alone in a rundown Moscow apartment. Accompanied by a young female translator who becomes the frequent target of his abuse, he travels to America to receive an award and make a speech at the United Nations. Along the way he meets such celebrities as Robert De Niro and Matt Damon on the set of the film The Good Shepherd; the late Walter Cronkite, who professes admiration; and Kevin Costner, who had written him a personal letter thanking him for his sound judgment.

Besides the U.N. speech, in which Petrov declares that he's not a hero but just someone who was "in the right place at the right time," we also see footage of him visiting such sites as NYC's Ground Zero, and a former missile silo, where he gets into a heated argument with a park ranger about the respective responsibilities of the U.S. and the Soviet Union for the Cold War.

These scenes are intercut with a harrowing dramatization of the 1983 event, in which the younger Petrov (superbly played by Sergey Shnyryov) is confronted with perhaps the most fateful decision in human history, one that could well have led to the planet's destruction. Rather than being commended for saving the world, he was upbraided for not keeping thorough notes and was later marginalized by his government.

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These scenes are staged exceedingly well, photographed and edited for maximum suspenseful impact. But the (relatively) present-day sequences, in which the elderly Petrov is seen wrestling with his personal demons and getting involved in heated encounters with journalists and other figures, have a staged quality that detract from their effectiveness. Clearly following a script and playing to the camera, he's reduced to being a bad actor in his own real-life drama.

Production: Light Cone Pictures
Director/screenwriter: Peter Anthony
Producers: Jakob Staberg
Executive producers: Raphael Avigdor, Christian D. Bruun, Morten Revsgaard Frederiksen, Peter Hyldahl, Norman Nisbet, Mark Romeo
Directors of photography: Kim Hattesen, Anders Lofstedt
Production designer: Peter Anthony, Jurgis Karsons
Editor: Morten Johbjerg
Composer: Kristian Eidnes Andersen

Not rated, 105 minutes