Director of new Netflix documentary exposes “terrifying” nuclear near misses

Daisy Phillipson
Footage of nuclear explosion shown in Turning Point

In an exclusive interview with Dexerto, the director of the new Netflix documentary series Turning Point: The Bomb and the Cold War opened up about a series of “terrifying” near misses that nearly led to an all-out nuclear war. 

Brian Knappenberger is no stranger to in-depth historical documentaries, having helmed the 2021 series Turning Point: 9/11 and the War on Terror for Netflix

In his latest feat, the documentary filmmaker takes on an even more ambitious project, tracking decades of tension between Russia and the US, starting with the invention of the first atomic bomb and traveling through the fall of the Soviet Union and the rise of Vladimir Putin. 

The nine-part docuseries is a truly comprehensive, gripping examination of Cold War history, one that delves into some troubling revelations – including a number of mistakes that nearly led to the destruction of humanity as we know it. 

Director of new Netflix doc exposes “terrifying” nuclear near misses

Turning Point: The Bomb and the Cold War examines two out of dozens of instances in which missteps nearly led to an all-out nuclear war between Russia and the US, which director Knappenberger describes as “terrifying.”

“When you look at all of the near misses, or the problems, or the misunderstandings, or just mechanical failures that happened throughout the 70s and early 80s, it’s terrifying,” he tells us. “If you want to have something that keeps you up at night, that’s a good place to start.”

Among those cases, Knappenberger highlights an incident in the summer of 1980, when Zbigniew Brzezinski – who worked for former US President Jimmy Carter – got a call in the middle of the night from military assistant Bill Odom saying he’d received an alert that 200 Soviet missiles were headed towards the US.

Before retaliating, Brzezinski wanted better confirmation. The next time Odom called, he said they’d made a mistake – it wasn’t 200; it was 2000. As is shown in the docuseries, Brzezinski later said he chose not to wake up his wife as “Washington would be gone in a matter of minutes” and he “thought she was better off dying in her sleep.”

As he prepared to wake up the POTUS, who would have to make the ultimate decision – retaliate or retreat – he received another call. Turns out, it was a false alarm caused by a faulty computer chip.

In another case, which unfolded in 1983, Lieutenant Colonel Stanislav Petrov was called in for a shift at the Soviets’ National Missile Defense Center as the regular watch officer was off sick. Despite not being an operational officer, he was in charge of monitoring the Soviets’ relatively new and untested missile warning satellites.

While on shift, the system alerted him that five US missiles were on their way to Russia. The regulations at the time said that any alert should be immediately reported to the President, but Petrov – who was “50/50” – decided to not trust the computer. He reasoned that if the US were to launch an attack, it wouldn’t send such a small number of missiles. 

Photo of Stanislav Petrov shown in Turning Point
Stanislav Petrov went against orders and saved the world

He later found out that it was indeed a false alarm – the warning system was actually picking up reflections from clouds. If he’d not trusted his instincts, the world would undoubtedly look very different today. 

Elaborating on these cases, Knappenberger says: “The most terrifying part of both of those stories is that they’re by no means isolated. Those are a couple that we know about, but there are thousands of incidents where there have been problems and mistakes. 

“So has that been solved? I guess the question is, how much do you trust technology? This cat and mouse game that we have with security and hacking – it’s not very secure. I’m not saying that nuclear weapons aren’t secure, but I think that we are prone to the same sort of mistakes that have always been a part of having nuclear weapons that are ready to deploy.”

Turning Point: The Bomb and the Cold War is streaming on Netflix now. You can also check out all of the documentaries and all of the TV shows hitting streaming this month.