Some stories are just too incredible to believe, even when they’re entirely true. With cinema, we’re sometimes offered a glimpse into such events in history; with The Man Who Saved the World, we’re treated to the true part of history in which one man was responsible for preventing a nuclear war. The title, somewhat surprisingly, is absolutely true.
Meet Stanislav Petrov. You’ve never heard of him, but you’re doing whatever it is you’re doing right now because of him. On September 26, 1983, the soviet military officer was positioned at the Oko nuclear early warning centre. When reports flooded in of an apparent missile launch from the US, Petrov used his better judgement to deem it an error, and act against Russia launching missiles of their own on America. Thankfully (and that word is quite the understatement), the missile did turn out to be false, and Petrov had essentially prevented a nuclear war – all from stopping himself touching that big red button in front of him. This story is so earth-shatteringly important that a documentary on it couldn’t possibly turn out to be bad – could it?
We meet Petrov in his dingy apartment; fate has not been kind to him, it seems. It then turns out that we’re to follow him, and his agent, on a globe-spanning tour that will see him meet celebrities, accept awards, and lock horns with people who view the world’s history concerning nuclear power differently than he. The problem is, director Peter Anthony (this being his debut) doesn’t know how to toe the line between fact and fiction; his documentary feels horribly contrived, at no point allowing things to take their natural course (dumping ill-chosen dramatic music over an argument), nor manufacturing any narrative or tension from what’s available to him (the part where Kevin Costner shows up is drawn out, painfully awkward, and just a bit weird).
The Man Who Saved the World does have its moments, even if there are few of them: the dramatised flashbacks to younger Petrov at the Oko centre making his life-or-death decisions are well made and suitably tense, even if they don’t rise above TV-movie quality. And Petrov himself is a commanding presence, a quiet, preoccupied man who, at the drop of a hat, burst into articulate intercourse on over-reliance on nuclear ‘deterrents’ and the state of security as a whole. But thanks to a wrongheaded approach to the subject, and a tone that flips violently between genuine history and engineered circumstance, even the man who saved the world can’t save The Man Who Saved the World.