The Man Who Saved the World

The Man Who Saved the World 1

Nuclear disarmament is a hot topic right now. Although Peter Anthony’s new docufiction film, The Man Who Saved the World won’t be released in UK cinemas until after the election, the timing is still very relevant for British politics. Managing to combine the solemnness of the subject matter with an at times playful and very human approach, Anthony has created a powerful, provocative and emotive exposition into the politics of the Cold War era, and the ongoing threat of nuclear catastrophe.

Stanislav Petrov, for a brief moment in 1983, held the fate of the world in the palm of his hand.  In present day Russia, Petrov is an irritable, drunken old man living a solitary existence in an ironically post-apocalyptic looking Moscow estate. As we follow Petrov on his first journey to the US—which includes an honouring at the United Nations and meeting figures such as Matt Damon, Robert De Niro and Kevin Costner—we begin to get an idea of the debt the world owes him. Flashbacks recreate the fateful night in 1983 when everything went wrong. Petrov was the senior officer on duty at Serpukhov-15, the command centre for the Soviet Air Defence’s nuclear warning system when an incoming US missile was detected—and then another, and another. With five incoming missiles ultimately detected and confirmed and sirens piercing through the station, all of the officers looked in terror to Petrov; the ultimate decision of whether to retaliate before it was too late fell squarely on his shoulders. Protocol told him to strike back, but his heart told him to give the benefit of the doubt. Ultimately the film shows us how one man, during the peak of international tensions, used his humanity and compassion and saved the lives of hundreds of millions of people.

A biblical quote at the beginning sets the tone for the rest of the film; “For what shall it profit a man, if he gain the whole world, and lose his own soul” (Mark 8:36, King James Bible). Through the lens of the tensions between the two superpowers, The Man Who Saved the World examines the fundamental issues of political and diplomatic relations, power versus love and liberty and the poisonous influence of hate upon our shared humanity. The intertwining of Petrov’s personal life—his relationship with his cancer-stricken wife in the 1980s, his estrangement from his mother and dissatisfaction with the world—against the political backdrop emphasises the individual people that make up any nation, and the respect of human life of every nationality that should underpin all international relations. Petrov consistently and insistently rejects the praise that is rained upon him, telling the UN that he is not a hero, but a regular person who happened to be “at the right place at the right time”. The burden is too big for Petrov to bear, for, the message reads, choosing not to press a button and killing hundreds of millions of people should not be something we treat as a heroic act, but rather treat it as motivation towards the only heroic act available to us—that of nuclear disarmament.

The overwhelming message of The Man Who Saved the World is that the threat is ongoing; as long as both sides keep their nuclear arsenals, Petrov argues, we will never be far from nuclear war, and its only a matter of time until a city like New York has a bomb dropped on it. One of the most striking events in Petrov’s travels across America is a guarded tour of a defunct cold-war era missile silo. Despite demonstrating some strange appreciation and awe for the aesthetics—“it looks like a beautiful woman with a tight waist”—and power of the thing, Petrov quickly becomes enraged by the uninhibited enthusiasm the guide clearly has for nuclear weapons, and his insistence that they were designed to be used only in retaliation. As Petrov angrily points out, the other side thought that too—its time to forget the past, and for both sides to stop seeing the ‘other’ as the enemy.

Here we do run into a bit of trouble though, for Anthony at times relies heavily on imagery of the Middle Eastern conflict and 9/11 for emotional impact, labouring the point of ‘what would happen if the weapons fall into the wrong hands’—ignoring the destabilising impact the US and Russia had in these areas. The semantic implication is the demonisation of another group of people, which uncomfortably jars with the overall message of peace. At one point, Petrov bonds with some gun toting Americans at a shooting range by hitting his target—a cut out of Osama Bin Laden. Perhaps the Russians are not the enemy anymore, but Anthony is ultimately doing no one any favours by simply switching one bogeyman for another.

The Man Who Saved the World will be in UK cinemas on the 15th May.