Barkley — So Glad You (Didn’t) Ask: A Column of Unsolicited Opinions #41

Chernobyl: A Review

By Chris M. Barkley:

Chernobyl (****, 2019, 200 minutes) with Jared Harris, Stellan Skarsgård, Paul Ritter, Jessie Buckley, Adam Nagaitis, Con O’Neill, Adrian Rawlins,Sam Troughton, Robert Emms,Emily Watson, David Dencik, Mark Lewis Jones, Alan Williams, Alex Ferns, Ralph Ineson, Barry Keoghan, Fares Fares and Michael McElhatton. Written by Craig Mazin, Directed by Johan Renck.  

Bechdel Test: Passes (In Spades)

Yeah

I can’t believe the news today
Oh, I can’t close my eyes
And make it go away
How long?
How long must we sing this song?
How long, how long?
‘Cause tonight, we can be as one
Tonight

Broken bottles under children’s feet
Bodies strewn across the dead end street
But I won’t heed the battle call
It puts my back up
Puts my back up against the wall

Sunday, Bloody Sunday…

The opening lyrics of U2’s political horror anthem “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” released in March 1983, three years and one month before the Chernobyl disaster…

In Episode Four of HBO’s historical drama series Chernobyl, entitled “The Happiness of All Mankind,” a Soviet soldier encounters an old woman milking a cow in a barn. This soldier is strict under orders to evacuate every civilian from an ever-widening exclusion zone around the city of Pripyat, the site of the shattered and dangerously radioactive Chernobyl nuclear reactor plant.

As the old woman milks the cow, she calmly maintains that she has seen waves of young men with guns, bolsheviks, revolutionaries, thieves and Germans alike, family and friends murdered or disappeared and she has stayed here on her family farm. And she has no intention of leaving now. Nervous and agitated, the soldier snatches the half-filled container of milk from beneath the cow and unceremoniously dumps it outside. Returning, he finds the old woman has resumed her milking with a different bucket. Angry, he draws his service pistol from his holster, cocks it and forcefully says, “It’s time to leave!” The old woman ignores him.

What happens next shocked me to my core and is one of the most brilliantly disturbing moments in this moving, caustic and infuriating docudrama, and in my opinion, one of the best dramas ever made for television.

Nothing can prepare you for some of the shocking images Chernobyl serves up:

  • The meeting of the city’s party bosses, who decide to conceal the truth from the citizens and cut off communications from the outside world to contain the bad news.
  • The face of a plant engineer, who is ordered, under the threat of force, to go to the roof the shattered reactor building to report on the state of the exploded core, knowing all too well that he will have days to live after peering over the edge into the inferno.
  • A fireman, unknowingly picking up a piece of graphite from the core of the reactor, is on the ground minutes later, holding up a blistered and bloody hand.
  • The irradiated bodies of barely alive first responders, whose flesh is literally melting off of their bodies.  

In the middle of watching Chernobyl, I wrote the following post on my Facebook wall:

After seeing three of Chernobyl’s five episodes, I have no doubt WHATSOEVER that it is one of the most excruciating, shocking, sorrowful dramas in the history of television. It is brilliantly acted through an astonishing ensemble and I have yet to detect a false note in its script or direction.

People, I’ve seen a TON of television in my life and I say this from the heart, you may never see a finer drama in your lifetime than HBO’s Chernobyl. SEE IT!

Over the past few weeks, I have also seen a lot of negative reviews in print and online, maligning Chernobyl as being sensationalistic, overwrought, scientifically and historically inaccurate and generally slanders the former Soviet Union, the people who lived in the city of Pripyat and those who heroically dealt with the crisis.

This, of course, is all bullshit.

Chernobyl’s writer, Craig Mazin and director Johan Renck were very upfront in stating that this production was not a documentary but a fictionalized version of events. In other words, Chernobyl is about as accurate as other historical dramas such as the film adaptations of The Right Stuff, All the President’s Men, Hidden Figures, Chariots of Fire, Selma and Moneyball. These works don’t tell the LITERAL truth of their stories but the ESSENTIAL truth of what happened. In an interview with Forbes Magazine, Mazin said that “The lesson of Chernobyl isn’t that modern nuclear power is dangerous. The lesson is that lying, arrogance, and suppression of criticism are dangerous”.

And while no docudrama or historical fiction is above criticism or reproach because there have been plenty of ham-fisted and wrongheaded productions that have been produced over the decades. But I get a little annoyed when a remarkable work such as Chernobyl is treated as though it must live up to an impossible standard, when in fact it has made no pretense about being a dramatization, an amalgamation of the true facts mixed with drama. And while drama, mythmaking and truth may not be the same thing but their paths lead in the same direction with a common destination: Illumination.

I would be remiss if I did not mention that the mini-series’ emotional heart is anchored by a trio of brilliant, powerhouse performances; veteran character actor Jared Harris portrays Valery Legasov, one of the real scientists who was recruited to help manage the crisis, Stellan Skarsgård as his boss, Boris Shcherbina, a Council of Ministers’ deputy chairman who quickly finds out that all of the political power he wields is no match for the forces of nature he has been commanded by the State to stop; and Emily Watson as Ulana Khomyuk, a composite character created to stand in for the scores of scientists who persistently  defied the Soviet bureaucracy in order to learn exactly what went wrong with the reactor design and how the accident happened. 

I offer a vivid validation in this review I found on the public comments page of Chernobyl’s IMDB entry, from an actual eyewitness::

They got it right

24 May 2019 | by curiosityonmars

“I was born in Pripyat. I was four years old when the accident happened. Watching it is more horrifying than living through it. We didn’t know what we were dealing with. It’s not like a hurricane or an earthquake that takes you by surprise and causes massive destruction. Here everything looked normal, that day was just like any other day and yet you were told to abandon everything and just leave. The immediate casualties of the accident were not huge, but it had an enormous impact on lives of hundreds of thousands of people. I often think what my life would be like if this didn’t happen.

This mini series is a masterpiece, perfect in every way. Some people are complaining here that the actors don’t speak Russian. I’m a native speaker of Russian and Ukrainian, I don’t want the actors to speak Russian. You get so consumed by this show you stop noticing what language they speak.

It’s not a documentary, so not each and every detail is accurate, yet I would still call it authentic. The creators got the important stuff right… Both of my parents worked at Chernobyl plant, I grew up hearing stories and versions of what happened. I think this show is the best depiction of the Chernobyl disaster and the stories of its victims. This show is to remind all of us of the cost of lies.”

In the weeks that have passed since I saw Chernobyl, I have been thinking about next year’s Hugo Awards ballot and what I might be nominating in the Best Dramatic Presentation-Long Form category. And, as much as I loved Captain Marvel and Avengers: Endgame, Star Trek Discovery, Black Mirror, The Umbrella Academy and probably the upcoming season of Stranger Things, I cannot bring myself to nominate any of them next year. What U2 sang about the terrorism, riots, bloody countermeasures and lies told in Northern Ireland in the 1970’s, easily applies to the leaders and policies of Soviet Union in the 1980’s and, more significantly, today’s brutally toxic political landscape.

I think that Chernobyl will cast a long shadow for the next generation of visual artists, as the high bar for what can be dramatized and how it should be done. In my opinion, efforts like this should not be ignored nor go unrewarded by the fannish community.

Chernobyl will be the lone entry on my ballot in the BDP-Long Form category next year.

And it’s true we are immune
When fact is fiction and TV reality
And today the millions cry
We eat and drink while tomorrow they die

the real battle just begun
(Sunday, Bloody Sunday) to claim the victory Jesus won

On
Sunday Bloody Sunday, yeah
Sunday Bloody Sunday

18 thoughts on “Barkley — So Glad You (Didn’t) Ask: A Column of Unsolicited Opinions #41

  1. Chernobyl is television at its finest. But surely it is ineligible for a Hugo Award? It is not science fiction or fantasy, not by any way of looking at it. Am I missing something? I’m giving Chris Barkley the benefit of the doubt, because he knows what he’s talking about, so I’d love to be convinced that this wonderful production fits.

  2. Chernobyl is one of the best if not the best tv series I have ever seen, and I have seen GoT and The Wire. But it’s not SF. The fact that it appeals to many fans because we are all science geeks and because it is incredibly, amazingly, touchingly respectful of the truth, is not enough reason to give it a Hugo.

    By the way, two things should be noted: there is a companion podcast which is ESSENTIAL listening, and not just because, as the host says, you’ve seen Chernobyl and now you need to talk about it to somebody.

    Secondly, there is no certainty, and there never will be, about how many people died as a result of the accident. The official count is still at 31, which of course is 31 too many. Unofficial counts vary by orders of magnitude.

    The final cards are a bit creative with the truth, saying that “it has been reported” that all the people on the Bridge of Death died. That is possibly, even probably, not true.

    After reading a hell of a lot about it, I think the good news is that even the worst nuclear accident that ever happened did not result in deaths of millions of people, and that we found out the hard way that you can survive a huge dose of radiation (many of the first responders, incredibly, survived, as did the people who volunteered, in the conviction that it was going to cost them a horrible and lingering death, to go below the reactor to avert a larger catastrophe), and that the population at large will only suffer relatively modest consequences. I was alive and studying Physics of Medicine at the University of Padua when Chernobyl happened and begged my parents to stay inside (they didn’t: they went for a walk in the mountains, picked flowers, mushroom, which they then ATE, and so on) and was terrified of a much worse scenario.

    All in all the Bhopal accident was much, much worse in terms of human life loss and consequences, and there is no Kremlin to shift the blame on, too.

    Which doesn’t mean that Chernobyl was any less terrifying and awful. Just that at the time we expected it to be much worse.

  3. I could see parallels to things happening right now. When ideology takes over, science goes away. The Soviets believed, because they had the correct ideology, that their state could make no mistakes. That certainly is the path to disaster.

  4. Apollo 13 was at least about the space program, and set in space… and as is, it was a contentious best dramatic choice, with a number of people objecting because it wasn’t science fiction.

    I don’t think you’re going to get Chernobyl, however sciency it is, to be a popular choice for the Hugo.

  5. Anna Feruglio Dal Dan:

    I visited Bhopal in the end of the 90:s. My mother was doing volunteer work there for a clinic that took care of the victims. At that time, the population hadn’t even gotten enough compensation to cover medicine cost. Even worse, the factories around had even worse safety conditions. I remember smelling a river from close to hundred meters aways, then seeing the black acidic water that was pure poison.

    My mother wrote at book later on, she’s a toxicologist, and it got her banned from entering India. The corruption lead all the way to the top of the country.

    It is too easy to blame this kind of thing on ideology. I blame it on fear of power, the fear of failing time plans or budgets, thinking of careers more than lives. Those factor’s exist in most economic systems.

  6. Being a contentious choice didn’t keep it off the ballot, although the contention may have cost it a Hugo. I guess the result will depend on how many people feel that “related”, as in

    Any theatrical feature or other production, with a complete running time of more than 90 minutes, in any medium of dramatized science fiction, fantasy or related subjects

    (from the BDPLF definition in the latest edition of the WSFS Constitution), can stretch to cover, or whether it must go under “Related Work” (which we’ve discussed here as a catch-all category).

  7. Ah, so “related subjects” could also count … I guess it could happen, then!

  8. You can agree that “Apollo 13” or “Hidden Figures” is kinda related, but once you do so, that opens up other scienc-ey and/or historical things as being kinda related as well. Both of the above movies are historical dramatizations of technology development. Suppose “The Dam Busters” was remade — would it be eligible? Would “The Imitation Game” have been a good nominee?

  9. Yeah, as good as Chernobyl is, I don’t think it’s Hugo-eligible. Not only is it not Science Fiction, it’s also not actually a “related subject.” I’d interpret “related subjects” as biopics about giants of the field, or a documentary about the science of Star Wars, or something of that ilk (and even in those cases, I personally would probably not vote for them unless they were beyond stellar), but not a historical drama about a nuclear accident. Surely, just being science-related isn’t enough for a Science Fiction award?

  10. “The lesson of Chernobyl isn’t that modern nuclear power is dangerous. The lesson is that lying, arrogance, and suppression of criticism are dangerous”.

    Except that that absolutely is the lesson. The second part is an important lesson, too, particularly in these days of fake news and science denialism. But there is no such thing as safe nuclear power and returning to nuclear power is not the solution to global warming. Which is why I’m glad that this miniseries was made at this point in time. Because that’s a lesson that needs to be relearned. Especially since the vast majority of nuclear power plants still operating are not in comparatively thinly populated areas like the Chernobyl plant. There are aging nuclear power plants in exclusion zone range to major cities like London or New York City.

    And blaming the disaster and the aftermath on Soviet incompetence is wrong, because I’m not sure if western countries would have handled a nuclear disaster on this scale much better. A western country probably would have evacuated sooner and would have had a more open information policy (or not – there are plenty of smaller, but still dangerous nuclear disasters in western countries that were suppressed). On the other hand, I suspect that a western country would have had more problems with containment and clean-up.

    Also, as Anna points out, the Bhopal disaster shows that a capitalist company operating in a democratic non-western country is just as bad at failing to inform and adquately evacuate the population as the Soviet Union. Ditto for the Seveso disaster in 1976. And the 1980s in general were an endless string of horrible and usually preventable disasters, probably because technological progress had outpaced outdated safety regulations and caused a string of disasters.

    I do feel that Chernobyl would be a fine Hugo finalist, because IMO it falls under the “and related subjects” clause as Hidden Figures, Apollo 13, An Adventure in Space and Time, The Right Stuff and the moon landing coverage. My guideline usually is, “If this film/series were fictional rather than based on a real event, would it be science fiction?” If the answer is “yes”, then I consider it a suitable finalist.

    And if something like Die Wolke (The Cloud), a novel and 2006 movie about a fictional nuclear disaster in Germany, or the various nuclear war movies of the 1980s (The Day After, Threads, Testament, When the Wind Blows, Special Bulletin, etc…) would have been acceptable Hugo finalists, then so is Chernobyl. Though interestingly enough, none of them ever got nominated when they were eligible.

  11. There’s a very informative podcast, hosted by NPR celebrity Peter Sagal with Chernobyl showrunner Craig Mazin, which goes into great depth about decisions that Mazin had to make and scenes he had to cut or shorten during the making of the miniseries. And also more details about the scenes that are in the miniseries. It’s available via the usual podcast apps, and also here:
    https://www.listennotes.com/podcasts/the-chernobyl-podcast-hbo-qBeNEwpQka8/

    If you liked the miniseries, this podcast is really not to be missed.

  12. I presume the rules may have changed in the past 50 years, but the 1970 Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation went to Apollo 11 TV coverage, and it wasn’t even fiction.

  13. Hampus: I had started to write a post to say much the same, but then life interfered.

    The point of Chernobyl is not that the bad Soviet Union put ideology over everything and caused a disaster. It’s much, much more nuanced than that.

    The disaster was the result of a series of factors, many of them not unique to the Soviet Union. The reactor was built on the cheap, and hence it was not built inside a containing structure. And there were some features that made it inherently unstable when run in certain conditions. It was criminally negligent of the night supervisor (Anatoly Dyatlov, a real person) to push the reactor to that point. But the reason they did it is because the quirk of the particular way the reactor was built was NOT DISCLOSED to the people operating the reactors. So on the one hand it was arrogance, negligence and recklessness; on the other it was lack of openness and transparency. Neither are unfortunately a monopoly of authoritarian regimes.

    Some idiots in Russia have accused Chernobyl of slandering the glorious Soviet Union. It doesn’t. It portrays it as a place where some things work and some don’t, some people are competent and some are idiots, where some people in power are vile cowards and others upstanding mensch. A normal place. If anything, it portrays the pervasive sense of community and civic duty of most of the citizens in a way that is highly laudatory.

    If Chernobyl was about how corrupt and oppressive the Soviet system was (and it was, not that it’s much better now) it would not be the incredibly important piece of work that it is. It really is about the price of lies. Including the lies people tell themselves: when poor Sitnikov is sent to look at the roof over the reactor to see it is still there (and he’s not threatened to be shot, he’s threatened that he won’t be able to work in the nuclear industry ever again), Fomin tells him “it will be there, you’ll be fine”. Despite seeing the blocks of broken graphite, they all kept telling themselves that the reactor could not have exploded, and therefore hadn’t.

  14. @bill, @Michael R. Johnston: AFAICT, nobody both willing and competent to subject themselves to the task of Hugo administration is willing to rule either as you suggest or the other way; except on matters of hard fact (publication dates, wordcount), administrators have generally left decisions on eligibility to the nominators.

    @gottacook: there is not much online documentation of rules that old, but I’m certain that the rules have become more detailed (if not clearer) since 1970. (One example I’m reasonably sure of: the 1972 Worldcon gave a Hugo to Again, Dangerous Visions by some mechanism, in the same year that it was published (i.e., not by the usual nominate-the-past-year’s works). The current rules are clear on what can be called a Hugo; some concoms give a special award, but it’s not a Hugo.) See above — and also consider what was thought a reasonable narrative style in newscasts 50 years ago; I have no clear memories (household was falling to piece around me that week), but I expect there was a fair amount of added drama. (Interesting referent: visiting the Boulder Dam, which has a modern narrated model but has preserved the original for people who wonder if anything was lost — the pomposity of the original is striking.)

  15. I embrace a more broad definition of science fiction and science fiction-related content than some people commenting above. Chernobyl, the TV mini series, accomplishes what some of the best science fiction does: it takes a disaster resulting from complex circumstances, explains both the disaster and the recovery in scientific terms (mostly correct science, too!), and makes it dramatic and compelling.

    Lester del Rey’s “Nerves” (1956), C.C. Finlay’s “The Political Officer” (2002), Frederik Pohl’s “Chernobyl” (1987), and others aim for similar verisimilitude.

  16. I can’t believe no one has mentioned Michael Swanwick’s In The Drift, an SF novel based on what life would be like if Pennsylvania’s Three Mile Island had actually melted down, poisoning much of the surrounding area.

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