HBO's ‘Chernobyl’ Yegor Moskvitin reviews a poignant new depiction of the Soviet disaster
A coproduction of HBO, the British network Sky, and the Russian media company Amediateka, the five-part miniseries Chernobyl premiered in the United States and the United Kingdom this month. After the first episode’s release on May 6th (episode two premiered on May 13th), the series garnered a higher critical rating on Rotten Tomatoes than Game of Thrones. Although much of what is depicted in the series will be familiar to Russian viewers, Chernobyl is not a purely documentary work. Critic Yegor Moskvitin discusses the 1986 disaster and its Anglo-American dramatization.
The nucleus of a disaster
It’s April 26, 1988, at 2 AM. A man in a sweater and large glasses (Jared Harris) sits in a Moscow kitchen, listening to his own voice emanating from a clunky cassette player. The recording claims that lies are dangerous: lying too frequently makes it impossible to detect the truth. The recording goes on to state that Anatoly Dyatlov, deputy chief-engineer at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, was sentenced to 10 years in prison for his involvement in the disaster of 1986. It adds that Dyatlov was not the only person held guilty for the accident — higher-level authorities were also involved.
Having finished listening to the recording, the man in the sweater takes a sip from a faceted drinking glass, then throws his cassettes into a trash bag, which he immediately takes out to the curb. An attentive KGB agent watches the man from his car but somehow fails to notice that the man has hidden notes in the ventilation system of the house. Upon returning inside, the hero feeds his cat and then hangs himself in the kitchen.
The action immediately goes back in time to the night of the Chernobyl disaster, exactly two years and one hour before the suicide. Along with three other characters — the wife of a local fireman (Jessie Buckley), a research assistant from Minsk (Emily Watson), and a deputy chairman of the Council of Ministers from Moscow (Stellan Skarsgård) — the hero of the first scene becomes the centerpiece of the show’s narrative arc.
This production dramatizes the life and death of Valery Legasov, a Soviet scientist who was put in charge of the Chernobyl power plant’s liquidation after the meltdown. Legasov really did commit suicide exactly two years after the disaster, and in 1996, he was posthumously named a Hero of the Russian Federation, the highest honorary title given by the Russian government. The decisions Legasov made in Pripyat (the now-abandoned city built to service the Chernobyl power plant) are well documented: it was he who insisted that the city be evacuated and gave recommendations on how to extinguish the burning reactor. After the accident, Legasov delivered a five-hour oral report at the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna. The speech received a mixed reception.
Legasov’s defenders believe he delivered a truthful report that helped pacify the international community and prevent crushing sanctions against the USSR. Supporters also claim that Legasov’s honesty was selfless because the Vienna report ruined his career, creating personal fallout that in all likelihood led to his suicide.
On the other end of the spectrum, Legasov’s opponents, including Chernobyl’s deputy chief engineer Anatoly Dyatlov, believe that Legasov shifted the disaster’s blame towards the plant’s staff in order to shield its real culprits: the designers of the power plant from the Kurchatov Institute. In the estimation of his critics, Legasov’s choice to sign a statement issued by a Soviet government commission wrongfully incriminated plant staff and shielded the disaster’s perpetrators from justice.
Both his supporters and opponents acknowledge that Legasov had the fortitude to go to Chernobyl and take responsibility for the disaster’s aftermath, all while spending more time at ground zero than anyone else. Although he was allowed to leave, he stayed there, day and night, trying to pick up the pieces.
What didn’t really happen
Thus far, HBO has only released the first three episodes of the five-part series to the Russian-language press, so I have not yet seen the show’s depiction of Legasov’s Vienna speech. Since critics from English-language publications have already discussed all five episodes, I can make a few predictions. Judging by a review from The New York Times (spoilers ahead!), the scientist’s speech serves a Hollywood-style story arc. In the show’s script, Legasov unexpectedly criticizes the Soviet leadership and, as a result, he becomes a pariah in his field and falls prey to harassment from the KGB.
A plethora of historic inaccuracies enhance rather than detract from the series’s impressive narrative power. Emily Watson plays a fictional scientist from Minsk named Ulyana Khomyuk, a character written into an ensemble of actual historic figures (the most prominent being Legasov, deputy chairman Boris Shcherbina, and fireman Vasil Ignatenko). In the series, Khomyuk warns the Director of the Institute of Atomic Energy about the imminent dangers of radiation. Unfortunately, Khomyuk’s grizzly, vodka-swilling superior tells her to forget about it, dammit. He knows better — he used to be a director of a shoe factory, after all. Khomyuk becomes an ever-present figure: you can see her in the street of Pripyat, in classified archives, in the hospital liquidation wards, and even at Gorbachev’s meetings.
Gorbachev is played by David Dencik, a Danish-Swedish actor with Czech roots. Dencik, who recently appeared as an associate of the Russian mafia on the British show McMafia, gives an unconvincing performance here. Luckily, the other actors in Chernobyl fare much better; Harris, Skarsgård, and Watson inhabit their roles brilliantly. Perhaps they succeed because no one tries to put on a Slavic accent. For the most part, Soviet life is faithfully recreated onscreen. In one breathtaking example, we hear a Konstantin Simonov poem being recited over the radio. It stunned me that the creators of the series chose these particular lines.
Moments like this lead me to believe that other inaccuracies in the show stem from deliberate dramatic decisions rather than lazy writing. For example, the accident did not actually produce thick black smoke over the plant. The invented use of smoke in the show, however, provides a logical atmospheric cue. Additionally, massive numbers of people were not killed by radiation poisoning on the night of the accident: the earliest victims of Chernobyl died of other causes, and signs of radiation appeared later. It would seem that these scenes offer a condensed sense of catastrophe rather than a factual recreation of events. At the expense of certain historical accuracies, the series succeeds as a historically based disaster drama.
A must-see (even if you remember the disaster yourself)
Somehow, this show manages to cover a colossal tragedy in the span of a five-part miniseries. If you can stomach some inaccuracies, Chernobyl will leave you in awe.
For British and American audiences, the series acts as a warning: its carefully written epigraph about government lies was certainly no accident. The series also chronicles feats of physical bravery: nuclear cleanup crews, firemen, soldiers, and coal miners are the show’s true heroes. In one scene, for instance, miners are ordered to excavate a gallery under the reactor. Before starting their suicidal task, they wipe their hands on their young boss’s clean suit, and one of them jokes: “Now you look like a person who works with coal.” We get the sense that the coal miners undertake the mission not because they were ordered to do so but rather in the hope that they can save the lives of the people around them. The series unequivocally glorifies the bravery of ordinary Soviet people. This leitmotif of Soviet heroism appears very frequently in the reviews cited on Rotten Tomatoes, dwarfing the topic of rogue nations with nuclear programs (as some media sources described Russia).
I will conclude by noting that Chernobyl is a work of colossal visual power. One piercing scene depicts widows watching their husbands’ funeral: instead of earth, they are buried in liquid asphalt; instead of wooden coffins, they lie in zinc; instead of receiving their own plots, they are placed in a mass grave. Despite — or because of — the fact that we know more about the situation at hand than the characters do, we feel utterly powerless watching them. We see kids romping about, not realizing that the air they breathe is already full of radioactive particles; firemen storming the burning reactor without chemical protective clothing; a radioactive cloud turning a forest red in a single instant; and flocks of dead birds falling from the sky.
Indeed, it’s a terribly beautiful show. All too often, television series and films transform local tragedies into global statements through the omission of important historical details. Chernobyl offers a timely example of how reality and drama can be reconciled.
Translation by Nastia Kozhukhova and Jessica Mitchell