The End of the World is Educational But Not Exactly a Thriller
When our concern about nuclear weapons is reduced, with good reason or not, to a shrug of the shoulders, you know we're in far better shape than we were 50 years ago when the Cuban Missile Crisis was raging.
At the time, Cuba, the United States and the Soviet Union (Russia) - armed with nuclear weapons - were on the brink of reducing much of the world to rubble. As it turns out, while it's good for all of us to be far removed from that very real threat, it defuses almost all the tension from documentaries like Secrets of the Dead: The Man Who Saved the World (PBS, 9pm).
The Man Who Saved the World focuses on a frightening time when Russia had four submarines on their way to Cuba, a communist ally.
Those submarines were loaded with nuclear weapons that were targeting the United States of America.
These days, it's hard to imagine that real people were filled with so much rage and just a button away from destroying huge chunks of America - and millions of Americans. Yet, it was very real, more so even than most people knew until recently.
Vasili Arkhipov was in one of those submarines. (Like many other soldiers handling Russian nuclear weapons, he later died of kidney cancer.) He refused to push the button that would have launched nuclear weapons at the USA, even though he had the authority to do so and was being urged to do it.
Of course, had he done that the world would be an entirely different, darker, sadder place than it is today.
Eventually, Russia backed down - with president John F. Kennedy negotiating behind the scenes with Russian premier Nikita Krushchev.
Life got back to normal. And Arkhipov and other Russian soldiers lived in disgrace back home in Russia, having failed in their mission to destroy America.
The story is incredible and it is well told in The Man Who Saved the World.
But, like other documentaries with grainy black-and-white footage about military battles, The Man Who Saved the World sometimes struggles to make an abstract military battle, no matter how amazing, a captivating tale as much as it is educational lesson.