Stanislav Petrov is a man we all owe our lives to, for it was through his actions, or rather his inaction, that a global nuclear war was averted on September the 26th 1983 when a fault in the Soviet monitoring system told the officials guarding against a missile strike from the United States of America that there was an attack launched against the Soviet Union. Thanks to Petrov, it was his order that stopped a retaliation being fired and a terrible tragedy on an unbelievable scale was averted. But now he lives in relative obscurity in Russia until journalists discover this remarkable tale and wish to tell it to the world, something as a modest man he is very reluctant to get involved with...
On the other hand, he may be very keen to get involved with it, as it appears the lure of becoming a movie star was too much for Petrov to resist, hence his starring role in this film of his life. It presented itself as a documentary, but be warned, there was a disclaimer at the end credits of this Danish work telling us that though it featured real people, the narrative had been embellished to create a fictional account of Petrov's experiences. Only there were some scenes that were clearly not staged given how awkward everyone looks, such as when he meets famous folk like Matt Damon (who he doesn't recognise) and Robert De Niro (who he does, but doesn't speak a word).
According to this, it was his favourite actor Kevin Costner who Petrov truly wanted meet, so he does and the erstwhile Dances with Wolves celebrity shows up as almost a supporting player in the movie, acting as a guide to how the viewers were supposed to react to Stanislav and his momentous decision back in the eighties. These parts seem genuine at first, but every so often there will be telltale signs that they had been contrived for the camera and the plotline director Peter Anthony had worked out beforehand. All of this begged an extremely pressing question: why bother? Wasn't this yarn dramatic enough without adding in what came across as soap opera sequences designed to get the tears flowing, but more likely be too clear we were being manipulated?
We do see a version of the pivotal moment in Petrov's life on that fateful day, which if nothing else teaches you Russians swear an incredible amount, or they did back then anyway, yet even this is hamstrung by a baffling melodrama which intrudes every five minutes. Fair enough, this man is a real hero for balking at the potential for ending millions of lives, but Anthony has him denying he is a hero and generally acting grumpy, except in those scenes where things do seem more documentary than the more obvious scripted bits, so if that were the case what the hell was he doing in this movie? Aside from meeting Kevin Costner, that was? Watching this unfold quickly became an exercise in wondering if there was some subterfuge, some hidden agenda, going on.
Certainly Stanislav Petrov was a real person, and that did appear to be him as himself (and Kevin Costner was real too), but there was a lot downright perverse about witnessing him in what amounted to a fictional effort with real asides. What was it about this that couldn't have been told far more successfully through a traditional documentary style? Was it that the most important part of the subject's life could have been related in five minutes tops and Anthony opted to build his role up by dragging in a whole subplot about Stanislav's poor relationship with his elderly mother which takes up a good twenty minutes of the end of the film? This glutinous sentimentality rings hollow as well, for he may have had those problems, as well as the flashbacks where actors play a younger self and his terminally ill wife, but none of it convinces and without knowing a lot about him beforehand it's very difficult to tell what on earth is the real deal and what was invented. Which is a shame: sometimes the conventional approach shouldn't be shunned, and this is an unfortunate example why.