One night in 1983, Stanislav Petrov was at work when a red button on the desk in front of him started flashing, sounding a deafening alarm like an air-raid siren. Petrov was the commander of the Soviet’s nuclear early-warning system. And the alarm signalled an American attack consisting of five missiles.
This was a time of knife-edge tension in the Cold War, weeks after the Russians had shot down a Korean passenger plane that strayed into its airspace. It was Petrov’s job to decide if this was a credible alarm. If yes, he would mostly likely have triggered a Soviet retaliation.
Petrov made the nerves-of-steel decision that the alarm must be false (not trusting his own side’s satellites and reckoning that, if you’re going to start a nuclear war, you’d fire more than five missiles). It’s a nail-biting story, but this doc isn’t as gripping as it should be, mixing reconstruction with fly-on-the-wall footage of Petrov picking up an award at the UN in New York – and hilariously mistaking Matt Damon for Robert De Niro’s son: ‘What’s your name?’ he asks Damon. ‘Mike’?