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Film Review: High-Rise

High-Rise (2015; Directed by Ben Wheatley)

Neurological lecturer Dr. Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston) is highly neutral and self-contained. A fellow resident of the high-rise apartment tower into which Laing moves (following the barely-discussed death of his sister) dubs him “profesionally detached”, and therefore both perfectly adapted to the pressures of high-rise living and inherently, quietly dangerous. Laing demurs an initial objection to this characterization but ultimately cannot deny its accuracy. As life in the skycraping apartment building, with its comprehensive amenities and vertically-integrated class stratification, spirals into post-apocalyptic anarchy, Laing soldiers on with heroically blinkered conformist quotidian normality. While his increasingly desperate neighbours loot the in-building supermarket for remaining scraps of food, he fights one of them off to leave with a can of grey paint. It’s just the right shade for his walls, and also for his face.

British filmmaker Ben Wheatley, in his other notable films A Field in England and Free Fire, has demonstrated a penchant for claustrophobically brutal, violently disturbing bottle-episode movies (he’s remaking Rebecca next, with a country manor house as the bottle). High-Rise fits nicely into those artistic parametres, but is an altogether stranger, wilder, more ambitious, and more challenging piece of work. Adapted by Wheatley’s collaborating screenwriter Amy Jump from J.G. Ballard’s 1975 dystopian novel of the same name aimed squarely at the dispiriting spread of grey Brutalist tower blocks across the urban sprawl of the Britain of the author’s era, High-Rise preserves the mid-’70s setting and aesthetic of the novel, seemingly for the director’s own reasons (he’s big on period pieces, and revisited the clothes and cars of the 1970s in Free Fire) than for any text-related necessity. The choice is just one of many that makes this an eerie, defamiliarizing, singular cinematic experience.

High-Rise is an entirely more mannered arrangement of Snowpiercer‘s linear socioeconomic divisions, with that film’s class-stratified train cars rendered inert and stacked high to colonize the sky. Resembling Ed Harris’ isolated, worshipped inventor/conductor in that film, the tower’s mastermind/stand-in for an absent God is white-clad savant architect Anthony Royal (Jeremy Irons), who dwells in the building’s penthouse (“hovers over the place like a fucking albatross”, one resident puts it), which is equipped with an edenic terrace garden to please his not-so-beloved wife Ann (Keeley Hawes). Dreaming of a complex of five towers surrounding a lake like an open palm, Royal can hardly conceive that this open palm of impeccably intellectualized urban planning might be clenched into a fist. Royal tells Laing that he conceives of the building sociologically as “a crucible for change”, but change from what and to what? The perceptive doctor notes that his architectural plans resemble “the unconscious diagram of some kind of psychic event”.

That psychic event, the amalgamated crushing pressures and alienated tensions of vertical urban living, is soon made manifest in a violent, survival-of-the-fittest upheaval, pitting the wealthy residents on the upper floors against the working-class dwellers of the high-rise’s lower reaches. But first, Laing must meet those residents. Soon after moving in, he becomes sexually involved with his upstairs neighbour Charlotte Melville (Sienna Miller), who has slept with most of the building, it seems; one such liaison has left her with a precocious son named Toby (Louis Suc), and Laing becomes a reluctant but firmly kind father figure to the boy. He makes the acquaintance of a married low-floor couple at one of the building’s numerous parties: restless and confrontational television documentarian Richard Wilder (Luke Evans) and his pregnant wife Helen (Elisabeth Moss), who is often left alone by her wanderlusty husband, lonely and depressed with their brood of children. At an altogether grander party thrown by Ann Royal at which all of the attendees but him are decked out in powdered wigs and 18th-century dress clothes like ancien-régime aristocrats (a trifle on the nose, but a nice image), Laing is ridiculed for his sartorial faux-pas by the guests, which include an arrogant colleague from his school of physiology named Munrow (Augustus Prew); in retribution, Laing will trick Munrow into thinking he has a fatal brain tumour.

Laing tries to hold himself apart from the roiling tensions ripping the uncomfortable community of the building asunder, skipping over the growing fissures on his way to and from work but increasingly unable to remain above the furiously grasping fray. Hiddleston, dashingly handsome and coolly dapper but with that fiendish Loki twinkle everpresent, leans bravely into the disequilibrium inside and increasingly outside Laing. He’ll suggest hidden griefs and guilt – at the loss of his sister, at his spiteful role in Munrow’s dark fate – with a look and an inclination of his head. There’s a furtiveness and buried romanticism to his Laing, a willingness to connect across the chasms of dehumanizing alienation of his milieu. “Your tenancy application was very Byronic,” Helen tells him when they first meet, a nod to either hidden depths of sentiment or at least an ability to suggest them.

Evans is another standout as the marginalized bully Wilder, while Moss and particularly Miller impart a woman’s perspective on the rigid social order of the high-rise and the consequences of its breakdown. The production’s budgetary limitations don’t bring down the overall vision, the production design, or the VFX, but they do show a bit further down the cast list, where finer and stronger character actors might have filled in some of the more minor but nonetheless vital resident roles in a larger production. More supporting players like James Purifoy, who plays a rich asshole with such florid smirking superiority, would have been appreciated, and would have raised the quality of the proceedings. One might also wonder if a stronger cadre of actors could have smuggled in more empathy and emotional involvement in what narrative there is to be found in this pageant of cold, misanthropic cynicism about the predatory baseness of human nature and the empty callousness of social environments. I can’t speak to whether that was the thrust of Ballard’s text, but it is certainly how Wheatley’s film chooses to approach the author’s ideas.

As a pure cinematic conduit for those ideas, High-Rise works very well, as Wheatley and his cinematographer Laurie Rose craft a compelling visual context for Ballard’s themes as transmuted through Jump’s screenplay. The Brutalist concrete skin and bones of the high-rise’s corridors, apartment units, and exterior balconies takes on differing moods and tones in different parts of the building at different points in its community’s dissolution. The sprawling parking lot (in which Laing confesses to have thoroughly lost his car) transitions from uniform order to war-zone chaos, as Foteini Vlachou points out in her essay on the film in Blind Field. On the middle and higher floors like Laing’s and Charlotte’s, they have a chilled breezeway feel, like the pyramid-penetrating halls of Egyptian tombs. On the hardscrabble lower floors of Helen and Richard, they are dim warren-like tunnels, although the busy packrat detail of their apartment feels nearly homey. The Royals’ suite is of course all light and sumptuously appointed furnishings, not to mention the idyllic garden complete with goat and horse (not that things go well at all for animals in this building once things fall apart; as in many arthouse films, cruelty to animals is used as a commonplace thematic marker for the inhumanity of the people who have power over them).

But also hanging in the Royals’ suite is one of Francisco Goya’s immortally unsettling and mysterious Black Paintings, Witches’ Sabbath (The Great He-Goat). Superficially a marker of Royal’s wealth and importance (Laing glances at it and wonders aloud whether or not it hung in a museum; it is, in fact, at the Prado in Madrid), the painting is symbolically foreshadowing the selfish, stupid grasping of the building’s residents that shatters the fragile balance and consensus of its social equilibrium. It also tonally anticipates the affect of Wheatley’s film once that balance is shattered; the figures in Goya’s painting are dumb and credulous, peering in cretinous awe at the deep black ungulate lord, a mob of ugly misshapen sheeple craning their necks at the malevolent demagogue they follow and worship in their provincial superstition.

The residents of the building in High-Rise become a dumb, destructive mob, but of what He-Goat-like force of dark ego are they acolytes, if any? What drives them to anarchy, chaos, rape, and murder? For Goya in the milieu of traditionalist, hyper-Catholic Bourbon Spain with its witch-hunts and inquisitions, the He-Goat was always the Great Enemy, Satan, whispering poisonous temptation into the supple, gullible ears of God-fearing Castilian peasants, Andalusian farmers, Catalan labourers, and Basque and Galician fishermen. In Ben Wheatley’s High-Rise, is the looming albatross-god, Royal, that dark force of influence and corruption? J.G. Ballard has a dark and critical view of technological progress and modern urbanism, but does he (or Wheatley and Jump on his behalf in this film) intend to equate urban planning and high-density residential zoning with the ubiquitously evil Devil? Is the He-Goat any of the archetypal characters in High-Rise? The unleashed id Richard Wilder, who is also perversely the lonely voice of righteous reason and the crusading journalist seeking to expose dark, uncomfortable truths? The purified ego Laing, crossing and transcending rigid class boundaries in his professional detachment while studying his neighbours like the subject brains of his métier? Is it the embodiments of the alternating ur-tropes of womanhood, the maternal (Helen) and the promiscuously sexual (Charlotte)?

The wellspring source of the ill humour and inhuman predation that characterizes human nature in High-Rise is not any being, mortal and sentient or divine and ineffable. It’s a psychological perversion at our core, that is at once an instinctual urge to survival and a self-sabotaging aggression and competitiveness, peevish and essential at the same time. Wheatley and Jump translate Ballard as suggesting that modern high-density urban life nurtures a seed of inhumanity until it grows into a flowering fern of atrocity. But they also reference a charged spectre in the history of British political and social life, from the period just following the publication of Ballard’s mid-’70s novel, that is representative of the inhumanity and atrocity that the author fretted about.

High-Rise closes with the audio of a Margaret Thatcher speech decrying state-run capitalism and lauding private ownership as the surest guarantor of political freedom. As the capstone of a highly thematicized narrative about the collapse of a microcosmic society (which, in Thatcher’s infamously soulless Toryist utterance, there is no such thing as) that is entirely the work of beknighted private enterprise and one of its glorified Olympian heroes of vision and genius, Thatcher’s words have an intentional dark irony. But in these final moments, Ben Wheatley and Amy Jump suggest that although Thatcher was just too late to play She-Goat to this particular grasping mob, her government’s domestic legacy of a hollowed-out, diminished social fabric in Britain (whose chaotic-evil inheritor is the hollow eagle of Brexit) was the inevitable successor of the unleashed forces, social and existential, that Ballard pinpointed in High-Rise. The freedom engendered by these capitalist forces can be a towering prison-like asylum for the gradually insane and it can be the rolling plunder of an unceasing class conflict that only the upper-class is equipped to fight and to win. In the gilded cage of High-Rise, there is nowhere to hide from all of that terrible freedom.

Categories: Art, Film, Politics, Reviews

Film Review: The Perfection

The Perfection (2019; Directed by Richard Shepard)

Charlotte Willmore (Allison Williams) is haunted; by death, by missed opportunities, by traumas of the past. Once a talented wunderkind cellist at Bachoff, a prestigious but mysterious music conservatory in Boston run by the refined, strings-pulling mentoring mastermind Anton (Steven Weber), Charlotte dropped out of Bachoff and let her cello collect dust to care for her dying mother. Her mother now gone, Charlotte appears weary, hollowed-out, keeping the lid on frustrated rage (one shot cuts from her sitting silently, staring at her mother’s wide-eyed corpse, to a split-second rending scream).

The interpretation of her mindset, given the information provided in this opening scene of Richard Shepard’s The Perfection, is regret and self-loathing at the waste of her talent mingling with disavowed grief. No wonder, then, that we next see Charlotte rehearsing (out of nervousness, or to strike the correct performative tone?) and then finally leaving a message for Anton and his partner Paloma (Alaina Huffman) seeking to reconnect with them and their exclusive musical world. She meets them in Shanghai, where they are auditioning promising Chinese girls in competition for a coveted spot at Bachoff. There she also meets Lizzie (Logan Browning), a world-famous virtuoso cellist and Bachoff graduate. They express admiration for each other’s playing, flirt, gossip, perform a duet, flirt some more, drink, dance, and sleep together. Lizzie then impulsively invites Charlotte to join her on an off-the-beaten-path tour of the Chinese interior, and they leave together the next day.

It doesn’t take long for their journey to become distressing. Feeling unwell and made paranoid by whispers of an airborne contagion infecting an attendee of the competition the night before, Lizzie’s physical condition and mental state deteriorates quickly on a spartan bus taking them into the sparsely-populated Chinese hinterlands. Despite Charlotte’s assurances that everything will be fine, Lizzie’s ailment creates a scene on the bus, but takes on horror-movie dimensions and becomes catastrophic and life-changing once they are kicked off the vehicle by an irate driver.

But director Shepard (he’s also the co-writer, with Eric Charmelo and Nicole Snyder) has his editor David Dean quite literally rewind events, and not for the last time, to show what is really going on. Although this first of multiple, meaty twists in The Perfection isn’t what it may immediately seem either, as becomes clear once the film shifts to Bachoff for its troubling climax. Shepard immerses his audience so viscerally in the tensions that enmesh Charlotte and Lizzie first in China and then in Boston that the pivots, which may have been discernible in advance, arrive with full disorienting impact. That impact, too, sheds thematic and metaphorical light on the psychological costs of intense mentorship with an uncompromising drive for success, and of sexual abuse by men in positions of authority. Charlotte and Lizzie’s partnership/rivalry (the film always keeps you guessing which one will win out at any moment) takes on subtly complex facets of feminine solidarity in the age of #MeToo.

Williams is best-known for her bait-and-switch role in Get Out, and with that in mind her casting as Charlotte is quite nearly a spoiler for The Perfection‘s twists. But her range here is much greater and much more unsettling. Browning gives Lizzie an electric charge of passion that renders the character’s direction unpredictable, and Weber (most recognizable as a soft and avuncular sitcom player) plays marvelously against type as a villain of cultivated veneer and fanatical monstrousness.

The Perfection is nearer to great than a low-budget independent cerebral horror with whiplashing plot tendencies released by Netflix has any reasonable right to be. Sharp-witted and eagerly misdirecting even at its economical running time, this is an entertaining and surprising watch with intellectual and emotional substance, not to mention its fair share of queasy and unsettling moments. It’s a compact but dramatic cello solo with a compelling crescendo, and worth the seeking out.

Categories: Film, Music, Reviews

Film Review – Godzilla: King of the Monsters

Godzilla: King of the Monsters (2019; Directed by Michael Dougherty)

The big, dumb sequel to Legendary Entertainment’s successful MonsterVerse-launching Godzilla film, Godzilla: King of the Monsters is very nearly pure spectacle. Where Gareth Edwards’ 2014 Hollywood franchise reboot of Japanese film studio Toho’s iconic gigantic lizard was a frequently stunning and often practically zen slowburn of an epic movie, King of the Monsters reduces the kaiju monster-battle genre to its most primal and elemental parts. If Edwards’ Godzilla was a surprisingly poised and nimble acrobatic act, Michael Dougherty’s follow-up is a rote performance of blunt, gawking, predictable adrenaline thrills, like a human being fired out of a cannon. To run the circus analogies well into the ground, there’s some considerable and frankly overstuffed predatory animal taming wrangling at work here too, as Gojira shares the screen with other city-smashing charismatic megafauna known as Titans who have awoken after long subterranean slumber to contend with the Big G for pack alpha dominion over our puny, groveling planet.

Like the movie it acts as a sequel to, Godzilla: King of the Monsters weaves a blandly conventional human family dramatic plot around and through the various conceits it deploys in order to put its Titans on mutual collision course. Unlike the previous Godzilla, which at least had an emotionally raw, honestly performed tragic parting of mature, believably human lovers (Bryan Cranston and Juliette Binoche) in its early scenes, King of the Monsters‘ human angle is mired in cliches and writing choices so insensible as to confound even the capable actors entrusted to bring it to life.

Doctors Emma and Mark Russell (Vera Farmiga and Kyle Chandler, respectively) were both scientists in the employ of Monarch, the global research and paramilitary conglomerate that concerns itself with finding, studying, and in some cases confining the Titans. They co-invented a device called the ORCA which reads and replicates the sonar-like bioacoustics of the Titans, enabling Monarch to communicate with the massive beasts but also potentially control and/or direct them. Mark (the animal behaviourist), however, has quit the organization and separated from Emma (the paleobiologist) and their teenaged daughter Madison (Millie Bobby Brown). The Russells lost their son Andrew in Godzilla’s rampage through San Francisco at the climax of the last movie, which led Mark to retreat from civilization and from Monarch’s work and led Emma to redouble her efforts on the ORCA while secretly forming a more dangerous and apocalyptic plan.

Emma and Madison are kidnapped (or are they?) along with the ORCA by ecoterrorist Alan Jonah (Charles Dance). Jonah’s aims and motivations are highly ill-defined for a main villain, but you know he’s bad because Charles Dance plays him. Similar casting-over-character-development strokes characterize the Monarch team pursuing Jonah and Emma and the awakening Titans. Chandler summons his standard-issue sweaty, desperately concerned dad figure. Ken Watanabe is back as Dr. Serizawa, Godzilla’s firmest believer and defender, whose laissez-faire respect for the Titans’ role in the natural balance is summed up in the “Let Them Fight” meme drawn from the previous film. Sally Hawkins is back as his colleague, and she delivers some lines, one supposes. Zhang Ziyi plays mythological specialist Dr. Chen, and despite my really, genuinely having seen the film, I had absolutely no idea that Dr. Chen was actually a pair of twin sisters until reading the Wiki. Aisha Hinds stalks around the bridge of Monarch’s massive stealth bomber-shaped air flagship, wearing fatigues and barking orders. Bradley Whitford stares at screens and provides status updates on Godzilla’s vitals, the proximity of weapons of mass destruction, and whatever other expositional factoids the movie happens to require; he also tells numerous bad jokes, including one about radiation-related birth defects (seeing this movie immediately after HBO’s Chernobyl miniseries leaves this viewer very troubled by these characters’ prosaic attitudes around radiation; “You’ll all be dead of cancer within five years!”, I wanted to shout at the screen time and again).

Much of what the humans in this movie do makes no sense logically or especially emotionally. Emma’s grand plan to counteract the planet-poisoning plague of human civilization by unleashing city-leveling monsters is an absurd cartoon exagerration of radical environmentalism that the screenplay (by Dougherty and Zack Shields) couches in her grief over the loss of her son. But the ludicrousness of this latter emotional conceit is laid bare when Madison confronts her about it, asking if she thinks total Titan-ic armageddon would have been what Andrew would have wanted; of course it wouldn’t be, he was a kid, he would have probably wanted an ice cream sundae! Heroism, rescue missions, noble sacrifices, and so forth; all of this happens in King of the Monsters, none of it feels much like anything.

But the human stories of the 2014 Godzilla were also pretty weak, at least once Binoche and Cranston shuffled off the stage. This shit right here is about giant monsters beating the everloving crud out of each other while skyscrapers topple in their wake, and King of the Monsters throws around a whole lot of that. Godzilla’s key rival for alpha status (and yes, alpha wolf theory is outdated and badly misleading in the case of wild populations, but let’s not fight that battle right now) over the planet and the other Titans is the three-headed hydra/dragon Ghidorah, freed from Antarctic ice to do repeated battle with Godzilla across the globe, always at night or in storms or under dense sunlight-erasing cloud cover (it really would not kill this movie to show us its CG monsters in the light of day). There’s also the huge pterosaur Rodan, who emerges from an erupting Mexican volcano, and Mothra, a gorgeous, glowing Lepidoptera who is kinda, sorta Godzilla’s wife (?) (also:) (!) and also has magical healing powers.

But more is not always better. There are some devastatingly epic monster fights and some big, bold, brassy shots in Godzilla: King of the Monsters, prime among the latter being the spectacularly blunt visual metaphor to the right of Ghidorah perching on a fiery volcano with a stoically contrasting cross in the foreground. Mothra’s hatching in a waterfall is tremendously lovely, her bioluminescent wings spreading out wide under the glowing waters, but all the beauty and wonder around this moth Titan is lessened by having her fill a Virgin Sacrifice role to spur Big Chonk Lizard on to final victory. But generally speaking, both the moments of poetic awe and the showstopping epic moments of Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla are aped in King of the Monsters as pale imitations. Here, what held mystery and strange romance is reduced to noisy, CG-heavy blockbuster fodder.

The fundamentally basic quality of Godzilla: King of the Monsters is a favouring of the spectacle, the action setpiece writ large. It has plenty of time for its rote plot of the fractured family in the midst of the spectacle, but little enough for the pregnant political and social allegories lurking in the shadows of the original 1954 Toho film, let alone the more amorphous echoes of contemporary politics and conservation issues in the 2014 film, or its connected release in Legendary’s MonsterVerse, Kong: Skull Island, with its critical view of American imperial power (it’s also difficult to imagine the great ape standing any chance at all against this mountain-scaled, nuclear-weaponized Godzilla in their coming dust-up in 2020’s Godzilla vs. Kong).

Emma’s monologue about wasteful human populations denuding the fragile earth tries to shoehorn environmentalism and climate change into the thematic picture, but Dougherty’s movie neither prefaces that moment nor continues building on it with any conviction. Godzilla: King of the Monsters can only pretend to care about the world’s problems. It seeks only to reduce them, and the world with them, into smouldering rubble for our fleeting amusement and, perhaps, fantasy wish-fulfillment (the climax of urban destruction takes place in Boston, and anyone familiar with that city’s sports fan culture over the past couple of decades can’t help but take some pleasure in its annihilation). The 2014 Godzilla was a big, silly entertainment, but there was a patience and vision to its destructive artistry that could almost be called existential in scope. Godzilla: King of the Monsters just destroys to entertain, and as a result is less successful at doing so.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Chernobyl: A Miniseries About Radioactive Lies and the Meltdown of Truth

Chernobyl (HBO/Sky, 2019)

In the Soviet Union in 1986, a nuclear reactor blew up. A disaster of this type is rare enough (nuclear power is generally quite safe and harmless, until it really, really isn’t) that it would hold a unique sensationalist interest on its own merits, if adapted as a big-budget disaster screen narrative. The insidious dangers of violently dispersed radioactive materials take on a horror movie dimension, while the disaster’s historical setting in the waning years of the USSR could be seen to portend the political and societal fall of the Iron Curtain, a sort of karmic reckoning for the vaunted “evil empire” of anti-communist fever fantasies. The fine technical details and scientific minutiae of the accident could even be marshalled for a sort of adapted detective story, a complex whodunit with a nuclear reactor as the murder victim.

The five-part HBO/Sky miniseries Chernobyl is about the 1986 disaster at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant near Pripyat in the Soviet Union (now part of Ukraine). It could have been merely any of the generic exercises described above, and in its final broadcast form is a little bit of all of them. But it is so much more than any sum of its genre parts, and it becomes so by being less: although Chernobyl is a handsomely staged and meticulously detailed production whose scale runs to the epic, it is also understated and scrupulously realist, subtle and nuanced, and more profoundly a study of human behaviour, social institutions, and the ever-fraught tug of war between the two. Far more deeply and broadly than being a time-capsule historical drama bashing the mean, myopic Soviets for nearly making Europe uninhabitable with their dishonest hubristic mistakes, Chernobyl is concerned with the slowly accruing weight of lies that will unavoidably collapse catastrophically in the face of a truth so terrible as to be inevitable. It is an unsettling and fascinating work of art both movingly timeless and urgently timely.

Chernobyl was conceived and written by Craig Mazin, heretofore a successful but unremarkable screenwriter of American comedy films (such as the two Hangover sequels), but with Chernobyl behind him, now a definite giant of screen narrative. Mazin has smartly accompanied the dramatic series with thoughtful and open engagement with fans and critics alike on his Twitter, but more notably with the five-part Chernobyl Podcast co-hosted by NPR broadcaster Peter Sagal. Mazin talks with Sagal about the ways in which Chernobyl accords with real events and the ways in which it departs from them, a startlingly transparent look into not only his creative process but the nuclear reactor-like balance between the hard truths of history and the pretty lies of narrative (Mazin also co-hosts a screenwriting-centric podcast with John August called Scriptnotes, so he’s well-versed in such discussions). It’s a canny multi-pronged employment of our contemporary multimedia landscape to grant depth, shading, and perspective to storytelling that, as careful and accurate as it attempts to be, is in and of itself a grand lie.

But Chernobyl is a lie shot through with galvanized truth. The first and most impressive thing to be noted about Chernobyl is how much effort is made on the production design end of the show to immerse the viewer in the peculiar, shabbily dated world of the mid-1980s Soviet Union. Although production designer Luke Hull and costume designer Odile Dicks-Mireaux are from the West, their local crews in Lithuania (where much of the show was shot) largely grew up in the late stages of the USSR, and their firsthand knowledge of the fine details of Soviet life – from the fabric used in suits to ubiquitous sunflower seed snacks to household garbage buckets to firefighter gear – combines with meticulous research to create an eerie verisimilitude of a social order that now seems even more strange to outsiders than it did when it still existed. For viewers from the former Soviet Union – like hockey writer Slava Malamud, whose Twitter threads on each of the series’ five episodes are every bit as essential secondary commentary as the podcast – this attention to detail has been appreciated while also calling up memories of the former regime that are not always fond.

But as Malamud and other Russian observers have also noted with appreciation and not a little astonishment, Chernobyl also provides a surprisingly true perspective on “the beauty, the ugliness, the mystery” of the Russian soul, whatever that might be vaguely understood to be (two of the great Russian literary giants, Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, would have disagreed fervently over what that “soul” happened to be). At the heart of the series’ understanding of how Soviets, from professional nuclear engineers and scientists to common firefighters, nurses, and miners to party bureaucrats and the powerful Central Committee, responded to the Chernobyl disaster and its horrible aftermath is on the one hand a mixture of wounded pride and cynical resignation to suffering in a harsh physical, economic, political, and social environment, while on the other a profound love for the country that pains and oppresses them, a sharp distrust and disrespect for authority (even if that authority is brutal and repressive in the face of defiance and dissent), and an incredible, heroic bravery that is matter-of-fact, self-effacing, and grimly accepting of ultimate sacrifice.

Russians sacrificed greatly in World War II, the blood of millions of its people soaking the frozen earth to defeat Hitler and Nazi Germany, only to see D-Day’s American GIs and a cigar-chomping British imperialist PM get the lion’s share of the credit in the post-war cultural debriefing. The Soviet Union’s sacrifice had little of the grandstanding of its Western democratic allies, but the WWII-era USSR’s solution of throwing overwhelming numbers of human bodies at its enemy was repeated, in many ways, at Chernobyl. The Soviet Union could ill afford the massive cost in manpower, materiel, and money that characterized the Chernobyl containment, clean-up, and “liquidation”, and Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev claimed that Chernobyl more than anything else finally brought down the USSR (it was going down soon anyway, though Chernobyl may have accelerated the breakdown).

Chernobyl documents these sacrifices and costs again and again, and the number of (mostly) men willing to lay down their lives at various critical junctures in the cleanup efforts will strike the viewer in America or the UK or Canada as amazing and insensible. As Malamud points out (and it’s not an observation that I, as a non-Russian, would dare to make entirely on my own), Russian strength, resilience and willingness to sacrifice the individual need for the betterment of the collective is very Eastern in character, not just a corollary of communist ideology but reflective of a mindset moulded by the unique history and environment and social and political order of the broader Russian nation. Chernobyl provides a striking contrast for the Western viewer, used to the gospel of happiness and individual worth; Russia, as Malamud observes, is not a happy place, and it does not value the individual above the collective. But it is because of this that it was able to respond to the Chernobyl disaster in the manner that was required, a manner that frequently counted lives and sent smaller numbers of men to their likely deaths to save the larger population by dousing radioactive fires, draining cooling tanks to prevent an apocalyptic thermal explosion, digging tunnels underneath the reactor to prevent a meltdown, and removing radioactive graphite from the exploded core from roofs with simple shovels.

The human costs of Chernobyl are written on the faces of the series’ core (mostly British) cast. Jared Harris, who after last year’s outstanding The Terror has carved out a niche for himself as the rational voice of warning in richly textured, bleakly metaphorical historical dramas, is Valery Legasov, a nuclear scientist sent to assess and address the Chernobyl incident. Legasov’s suicide two years to the day after the disaster is Chernobyl‘s initiating incident, and the rest of the series follows his wearily practical assessments of the damage and increasingly strident and dangerous criticism of the state’s failures and corner-cutting measures that contributed greatly to the accident. Aiding him with gravel-voiced, steel-spined bureaucratic muscle is Stellan Skarsgård’s Boris Shcherbina, who like much of the Soviet power structure initially doubts Legasov’s alarums on the dire severity of the situation but soon enough gains appreciation and admiration for the scientist’s knowledge; after Legasov explains how a nuclear reactor works under Shcherbina’s threat of being thrown from a helicopter, there is a thawing of tensions that eventually grows to a sort of limited professional collaborative friendship.

As Shcherbina marshals overwhelming manpower, a fleet of helicopters to douse the burning reactor with sand and boron, lunar rovers and a West German police robot to clear the radioactive roofs, and any other resources Legasov deems necessary to lessen Chernobyl’s terrible post-explosion impact, Emily Watson’s Ulana Khomyuk plays detective, investigating the causes of the disaster. A composite character representing the legion of nuclear physicists and other scientific minds who aided Legasov in responding to the disaster in its aftermath, Khomyuk is even more willing to call out the incompetence of the Soviet power structure than Legasov (in real life a committed Communist Party ideologue who was slow to publically acknowledge where the ultimate fault for Chernobyl lay).

The heartbreaking human costs of the disaster are imparted through the subplot of Lyudmilla Ignatenko (Irish actress Jessie Buckley) and her firefighter husband Vasily (Adam Nagaitis, Harris’ co-star from The Terror); Vasily is among the first responders to the power plant fire on the night of the explosion and dies in agony from the radiation poisoning, but not without the loving Lyudmilla by his side to the end, even though her own exposure to the radiation devouring his body claims the life of their unborn child. In the series’ difficult fourth episode, Barry Keoghan (Dunkirk) is Pavel, a green recruit to the ranks of the clean-up crew of liquidators (many of them hardened veterans of the USSR’s war in Afghanistan) who is assigned to animal control, the wrenching elimination of the irradiated housepets left behind in the evacuation of the Exclusion Zone.

As tremendous as Chernobyl is, Mazin turns it towards a more conventional sense of narrative closure and blame of antagonists for the worst aspects of the disaster in the final episode. Intercutting the show trial of the promotion-minded engineers in charge of Chernobyl’s Reactor Four (Paul Ritter, Con O’Neill, Adrian Rawlins) on the night of the disaster with a belated re-creation of the fateful events of the night in that room, Mazin and director Johan Renck find a highly hateable (and surprisingly meme-able) villain in Ritter’s recklessly arrogant Anatoly Dyatlov, and allow Harris as Legasov (a figure not even present at the trial) to not only clearly and compellingly demonstrate what went wrong (good) but also launch into a dramatic courtroom thesis statement speech about bureaucratic lying and how the harsh truth always catches up to it, with often deadly consequences (less good). It’s a climactic moment of shameless dramatic license that may have been earned by a miniseries otherwise mostly characterized by heartening historical fidelity, but turning Legasov into a grandstanding, truth-defending Slavonic Atticus Finch in the closing episode is still an indulgence that Mazin ought to have resisted.

Chernobyl found fans and admirers not only among the standard prestige television cosmopolitan liberal audience, but among conservative commentators who characterisitically read it as a simple and blunt takedown of Soviet corruption and incompetence (and what, they bleat, do you think would happen if Bernie Sanders became President? Vote Trump! Who we deeply morally object to, we swear!). Although many former Soviet citizens, as noted, found the miniseries to be accurate and even affecting, Putinists and nationalists chafed at the critical tone and the revisiting of Chernobyl’s humiliation; a propagandistic Russian production based in anti-Western conspiracy theories is apparently planned in response.

Mazin himself has superficially resisted firm ideological readings, at least those from the right, preferring instead to emphasize the human fallibility at the core of the disaster. But he has also related the miniseries’ central metaphor about the radioactive nature of lies and the inevitable meltdown that is the truth to contemporary political discourse in its primary airing locations of the United States (where the dizzying layers of lies of the Trump Administration have already precipitated disasters such as the inadequate response to Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico and the migrant concentration camps along the southern border) and the United Kingdom (where the irresponsible dishonesty of the powerful that has underscored Brexit remains a sword of Damocles poised above Britain, Ireland, the rest of the EU, and the whole world). Chernobyl does not contain the root causes of its radioactive horrors in the past, but shows how human errors and compounding deceits threaten the stability and safety of the social order, even today.

Categories: History, Reviews, Television