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