Most people think that the 80s were a carefree time where synthesizer infused music, really terrible clothes and fast food reigned. What many forget is that we were still well entrenched in the death rattles of the Cold War. There was a lot of tension between the Soviet Union and the United States. Between Ronald Reagan‘s ridiculous sabre-rattling and reckless rhetoric and the constant shuffling of General Secretaries of the Central Committee of the Communist Party in the Soviet Union (Brezhnev, Andropov and Chernenko all filled the role from November ’82 – March ’85), there was a lot of uncertainty and tensions were incredibly high and for many good reasons. When Nicholas Meyer‘s The Day After, which showed what the effects of nuclear war would be on American soil, aired on November 20, 1983, the conversation changed, at least for Americans who had only seen the after effects of the bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The film was incredibly graphic it scared the shit out of me and it still holds up incredibly well. But as that part of our history faded, the notion that a nuclear attack could happen also faded. And this is where the story of Stanislav Petrov comes in to play.
On September 26, 1983, when Petrov, a Lt. Col in the Russian army and specifically the Soviet Air Defense was on duty, an alert sounded for an incoming missile from the United States. As the officer in charge, Petrov had to decide whether or not the threat was real or if it was a malfunction of the system. Literally, the fate of the world rested in his hands – he had to decide whether or not to launch a counter offensive that would essentially begin, and effectively end, World War III with the punch of one button. In his wisdom, and without visual confirmation from his staff from satellite imagery, Petrov to issue the order to launch Russia’s nuclear arsenal. But when not one, not two but four more missiles were picked up by the tracking system, the decision became increasingly more difficult not to launch. But Petrov held strong to his convictions that an unprovoked attack from the United States had not occurred and lucky for ALL of us, his assertions were correct. Had he gotten caught up in the moment like any number of other Russian officer hungry for American blood, no one would be reading this, let alone the name of Petrov, as the Earth would have ended on that day.
Director Peter Anthony‘s approach to telling this story is quite compelling. He bounces back and forth from narrative, biopic-style storytelling to documentary footage of Petrov fleshing out the whole of his story, every sad and lonely last detail. For a man who actually saved the world from total annihilation and destruction, Petrov was largely denied the rightful thanks he so deserved. He lost his rank after the incident because he didn’t follow protocol, his wife died and he fell into alcohol, all while being estranged from his family who showed him no love which is what led him into the army to begin with. This is a gut wrenching story but one of such incredible importance that I’m glad it was finally told.
In watching this film, I couldn’t help but to think of Sting‘s song, “Russians” and the line “do the Russians love their children too?” The Russians were so demonized by Reagan and his administration (and many of them before it), that it is probably hard for some of them to swallow Petrov‘s story. Peters did such a magnificent job in telling it in a way that I believe honored Petrov but pulled no punches in showing him as he is and the situations that surrounded him, either through the fictional narrative flourishes or through the tough documentary segments. Just when you feel you might lose your faith in humanity, a story like this comes along and restores at least a little of it. Petrov is no doubt a hero and worthy of any and all accolades. Perhaps the toughest part about this story is that the fate of our existence can really come down to the decision of one person supplied with bad information. Whether that person can make the choice that Petrov did is an entirely different story. I, for one, am glad it was Petrov who was at the helm on September 26, 1983.
This film opened in New York this past weekend and hits theaters in LA this coming weekend. As we creep closer to the Oscar fare hitting big screens, there is still time to catch a film as wonderful as this. This a story that is almost too unreal to be real.
Get there, people.