Home > History, Reviews, Television > Chernobyl: A Miniseries About Radioactive Lies and the Meltdown of Truth

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.

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Categories: History, Reviews, Television
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