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If not for Stanislav Petrov, you wouldn’t be reading this. Chances are you and everyone you know would be long dead or never born.

In 1983, at the height of the Cold War, after Reagan dubbed the Soviet Union an “evil empire” (way to breed peace, Ronnie), Petrov, then a colonel in the Soviet army, was on duty one night, supervising the Soviet nuclear response team. Suddenly a satellite transmitted the news that a missile had been launched and was headed for Russian soil.

Nobody could visually confirm or deny whether the missile was real, so Petrov held back from firing Soviet missiles at the U.S. Then the satellite began reporting more missiles on the way — two, then three, then four and five. Petrov, aware that if he launched the Soviet nukes it would mean hundreds of millions dead immediately and the rest following in a likely nuclear winter, still held back.

The missiles turned out to be phantoms.

So where is this hero now? When we meet Petrov in the stirring, scary documentary “The Man Who Saved the World” he’s living in a cramped Moscow apartment, empty vodka bottles scattered across the floor, grizzled and argumentative, an obvious wreck. He has agreed — for monetary compensation — to travel to the United Nations to accept an award.

Escorted by a translator, Galina Kalinina, who is initially appalled by his demeanor, he makes the trip. And after he makes a small speech and is greeted with rounds of applause, the grumpy old man starts to lighten up — a little.

The film follows a few threads. There’s a tense re-enactment of the nuclear crisis, but there’s also a re-enactment of Petrov’s life after he quits the military to care for his long-ailing, cancer-ridden wife; when she dies, he falls apart. And then there’s Petrov in America, meeting celebrities in New York City (De Niro, Matt Damon — he has no idea who Damon is). After which he and Galina take a cross-country trip to meet Kevin Costner, Petrov’s favorite movie star.

Through it all, it’s clear that the possibility of a nuclear holocaust still haunts the man — how could it not? But the mix of the intensely personal with the global keeps “The Man Who Saved the World” from feeling too politically preachy. Still, the idea that it came down to one man is terrifying. Even more terrifying: No one ever figured out why the satellite thought missiles had been launched.

tlong@detroitnews.com

twitter.com/toomuchTomLong

‘The Man Who Saved the World’

GRADE: B

Not rated

Running time: 110 minutes

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