Sunday, December 29, 2019

"Chernobyl": review

HBO's 2019 "Chernobyl" is a five-part miniseries about the 1986 disaster at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine. The drama has several subplots; one focuses on the efforts of certain scientists and one party official to handle the crisis on the ground and the public-relations fallout (pardon the pun), all in the face of a Soviet government determined to present to the world an air of confidence and competence. Another subplot deals with the pregnant wife of one of the firefighters sent to the plant. A third subplot depicts the toil of a group of tough miners who are tasked with digging out a space beneath the dangerously radioactive plant in order to install a heat-exchanger that will reduce the thermal emissions from the plant's exploded core. A fourth subplot, which occurs later in the miniseries, focuses on a young man who is drafted into an ongoing military effort to salvage irradiated territory and prevent the continued spread of radiation; in the young man's case, his job is to stop irradiated pets and wildlife from leaving the enormous hot zone by shooting the animals down, piling them into a truck, and burying them under concrete. The series's final episode deals with the trial of the people managing the plant at the time of the disaster, thus offering our lead characters, the aforementioned scientists and party official, a chance to provide expert testimony about what exactly occurred on the early morning of April 26, 1986.

Russia apparently wasn't happy with this miniseries. Russian film critics, historians, politicians, and other people actually involved in the events of the Chernobyl disaster have accused the HBO team of producing a miniseries rife with exaggerations and outright lies. "Chernobyl" gives us a fairly clear list of heroes and villains; the show has little truck with moral ambiguity, and as a result, many Russians question the nature of the storytelling on display. I have no idea what the actual truth is, although I assume that much of what I saw while watching the series is based on fact, given the ending-credit title cards in the final episode, which give us updates on what became of many of the principal characters portrayed in the drama. (Spoiler: pretty much everyone ultimately dies of radiation exposure. The whole thing was and is a massive Shakespearean tragedy.)

One of the central mysteries of the series was how it was possible for a graphite-lined core to explode. The scientists spend much of their time focused on this question, and it isn't until the trial in the fifth and final episode that we get the full story of how it happened. The trial is significant because it was the moment when scientists, and even a crucial party official, felt obliged to tell the truth about how systemic incompetence and blind pride and nationalism kept people from facing the reality of the situation. Story writer Craig Mazin and series director Johan Renck both saw the Chernobyl story as a sort of metaphor for the fake-news, post-truth, alternative-facts times we currently live in, although they view the problem from the liberal/left end of the spectrum. The moral of the story, as in Alan Moore's Watchmen, is that the truth, however much it gets suppressed, will always eventually find its way out.

"Chernobyl" is a huge, sprawling story featuring an ensemble cast, but worthy of note are the actors who played the principal characters—mostly British thespians who play Russians, but with their native accents in place. (A few American actors are scattered throughout the cast in minor roles.) Jared Harris is Valery Legasov, the nuclear scientist—and deputy director of the Kurchatov Institute—who is called in to unpack the mystery of the explosion; Stellan Skarsgård is Boris Scherbina, a party official who is initially dismissive of the danger, but who eventually comes to understand the gravity of the situation. Emily Watson—she of the perpetually haunted facial expressions—plays nuclear scientist Ulana Khomyuk, a fictional character created to represent the hundreds of scientists who work with Legasov to unravel the jumbled chronology of the disaster. Paul Ritter plays consummate dickhead Anatoly Dyatlov, the on-site manager who insisted that the nuclear plant run a safety test that should never have been run while the plant was at low capacity. Jared Harris is a great choice for the role of Legasov; he is the Platonic ideal of nondescript in terms of his looks, and he plays the role of a socially tone-deaf scientist to the hilt. Stellan Skarsgård portrays the only main character to go through anything like a character arc: his Boris Scherbina is a gruff mocker of scientists and dismisser of obvious truths at first, but once he witnesses the sheer destruction at Chernobyl with his own eyes, his mindset changes, and he becomes an advocate of the scientists, joining them in their search for truth while also weaving his way through the nightmarish bog of Soviet bureaucracy. Skarsgård brings to the role his characteristic authority and wit. Emily Watson as Ulana Khomyuk does her usual fine job of looking haunted as she teases out the implications of the plant explosion, the shattered core, and what the disaster implies for millions of lives in the USSR and Europe. Paul Ritter deserves a ton of credit for portraying one of the most hateful—and hated—characters in the story: Anatoly Dyatlov refuses to listen to reason, insisting on doing things his way, then blaming his subordinates when everything goes to hell.

The story begins in 1988, two years after the disaster, with Dr. Legasov recording his thoughts onto several audio cassettes, then hanging himself. Before he commits suicide, he bundles the tapes up and hides them in a small, dark niche outside his building, presumably so that someone will come along, pluck them out, and eventually disseminate his final thoughts to the world. The title cards in Episode 5 tell us that Legasov's suicide made it impossible to ignore the tapes, and apparently, Mikhail Gorbachev himself saw the Chernobyl disaster, with its cracking-open of the shell of Soviet lies, as the true catalyst for the fall of the Soviet Union, which happened only a few years later.

Overall, I found the story—whatever its fictions—to be a riveting watch. In some ways, the construction of the drama harks back to old, 1970s-era disaster films, which also featured ensemble casts, and also examined the chain of events leading up to a disaster. Disaster stories can't help but be morality plays. I do, however, have some disagreements with the thrust of this drama. First, I'll start with something that actor Stellan Skarsgård says during an interview: ultimately, it was the system that was to blame. Systemic thinking is an artifact of the leftist/liberal mentality, which refuses to see things in terms of individuals. While I would never go so far as to claim that systems don't exist, I think it's the individuals in those systems who make crucial choices that affect thousands, or even millions, of others. My second disagreement is with the implication, by the show's writer and the director, that "Chernobyl" should be taken as a moral tale about current political leadership, i.e., the rightie-nationalist people like Donald Trump and Boris Johnson. In the times we currently live in, it's less the leaders and more the media that are the cause of the crisis in truth we're currently experiencing. I think writer and director Mazin and Renck would be braver to couch the moral lesson in terms of the leftist fakery and chicanery happening these days, but somewhat ironically, they are, like the politicos in the Soviet Union, obliged to stick to the leftist narrative, which rejects the truth.

"Chernobyl" is a depressing yarn. If the message of the miniseries is what Mazin and Renck say it is, then the drama has missed the point. But those with eyes to see and ears to hear will tease out the correct message from this well-crafted story... because lies carry a huge cost, and the truth will always eventually find its way out.


  1. Superb analysis of one of my favorite shows. Recommend following it up with the BBC's Years and Years (if you can get past its political leanings) or Netflix's The Crown (all three seasons)



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