PBS // 2012 // 54 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge William Lee // February 2nd, 2013
The stunning revelation that the world was closer to nuclear destruction than we knew.
While I was watching PBS's Secrets of the Dead: The Man Who Saved the World, I kept thinking about the movie Crimson Tide. At the end of the thriller directed by Tony Scott, a final note informs us that in 1996 the authority to fire nuclear missiles was taken from U.S. submarine commanders and placed with the president. Can it really be true that until recently any submarine could have been the catalyst for World War III? It makes for great Hollywood fiction but surely the power to start a nuclear war had tighter safeguards.
No matter how much drama can be wrung out of a fictional story, there was perhaps no greater real-life nail-biter than the standoff between the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cuban Missile Crisis. In October 1962, the U.S. Navy set up a blockade of Cuba to intercept Soviet missiles destined for installation on the island. Four Soviet submarines were deployed to the Atlantic and each was armed with nuclear torpedoes that equaled the firepower of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima.
Another place my mind wandered while watching this DVD: movies rely too much on the faceless soldiers and uncompromising tacticians that push the button because they are just following orders. Recent automatons include the pilot who had no problem firing a nuclear missile on Manhattan in Marvel's The Avengers even while the heroes on the ground were fighting off an alien invasion. In The Dark Knight Rises a soldier blew up the bridge out of Gotham to keep a school bus full of kids from escaping a bomb. The movies paint a picture that military people would rather doom innocent lives than risk insubordination. Let's hope the ease of those decisions is purely fiction.
This documentary convincingly argues that the world owes thanks to a Soviet officer who kept his cool when he could have simply followed orders. Vasili Arkhipov was the fleet captain responsible for the four subs deployed to Cuba. Olga, his widow, tells us he was deeply affected by seeing his comrades stricken by radiation poisoning during the ill-fated voyage of Russia's first nuclear-powered sub -- that story is told in the movie K-19: The Widowmaker. Vasili had final veto power should the sub's captain and political officer agree to launch their "special weapon," as had been authorized in their mission orders. On October 27, 1962, Vasili Arkhipov stared down the possibility of mutually assured annihilation.
This latest installment of PBS's long-running Secrets of the Dead series relies on interviews with survivors, archival footage and dramatic reenactment to tell its story. There isn't the emphasis on archaeology and forensic evidence that other episodes employ but the documentary manages to fit in lots of information about submarine technology. Those details, like the fact the Soviet subs dispatched to Cuba were actually designed for Arctic waters, certainly add to the growing tension of the situation as director Nick Green really tries to present the Soviet sea men's experience of those critical days. The interview of a radio operator on the Soviet sub B-59, as told to the U.S. National Security Archive and recounted to the filmmakers, and that of the captain of a different sub provide the closest to first-hand accounts of the tense situation undersea. Gary Slaughter (a communications officer on the USS Kony) and John Stoessinger (a White House advisor) tell the American perspective, recounting how the entire U.S. fleet hunted and harassed the enemy subs completely unaware of the catastrophic payload the Soviets possessed.
The reenactments of the situation inside B-59 are respectably done. The actors speak English despite being Russian submariners but that's to be expected in a program like this. The suspense isn't over played since the script prefers to stick to the facts rather than interpolate the clash of motivations among the Soviet crew. The key moment between Arkhipov and Captain Savitsky is relatively sedate considering the stakes involved. It's a respectful treatment of historic events but the dramatic climax may feel a bit anticlimactic. Of course, it goes without saying that the resolution of the danger 50 years ago isn't a mystery.
PBS's DVD lacks extra content but the technical presentation of the program is quite good. The picture looks fine with a satisfyingly sharp image and natural looking colors. Voices are heard clearly on the stereo audio mix.
Secrets of the Dead: The Man Who Saved the World is a suspenseful slice of history. Telling the story of the Cuban Missile Crisis from the Soviet perspective is daring and the effort pays off with the revelation of a real hero to the world. History buffs will certainly enjoy this DVD. Viewers unfamiliar with these events will appreciate the clearly told chronology that puts it all in context.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 54 Minutes
Release Year: 2012
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Official Site