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“And here we are” – on HBO’s Chernobyl

Audiences are used to watching cities being destroyed. From earthquakes to tornadoes, from devastating industrial accidents to wars, from giant rampaging monsters to legions of valiant heroes who wind up wrecking much of a city in an attempt to save it – each of these scenarios could describe any number of different movies, television programs, or other works of popular culture. And though the causes and sites of destruction are often fictional, many of these works unsettle their audiences by warning them that “this could really happen,” or even more troubling “this really happened.” Fresh from dominating the cultural conversation with its horrific images of fictitious cities being laid waste by undead armies and dragons, HBO pivoted from dragon-fire to nuclear-fire with its miniseries Chernobyl. Proving that, grim though the destruction of King’s Landing may have been, ultimately a CGI dragon is much less frightening than the nonstop clicking of a dosimeter.

The failure of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant is one of the notable tragedies of the 20th century; an event that demonstrated that the apocalyptic warnings issued by nuclear critics could not be dismissed as purely hyperbolic. The success of the Chernobyl miniseries, critically and in terms of viewership, places it as one of the ballooning number of prestige television products in the 21st century. As is the case with most critically acclaimed prestige television, Chernobyl claims to have something profound to say not only about the past, but about the present. And though Chernobyl is certainly a well-made piece of programming, the show is ultimately like the ineffectual breathing masks its lead characters scarcely bother to wear: it may give a sense of safety, but really does nothing of the sort.

[Editorial note: throughout this piece whenever Chernobyl is italicized it refers to the television program, where it is not italicized it refers to the actual historical event. Also, just to give fair warning, there are “spoilers” for the television program in this piece.]

Chernobyl begins not with the disastrous event, but with Valery Legasov, former chief of the inquiry into the disaster, recording his account of what happened before committing suicide. From there, Chernobyl jumps back in time, two years, to the exact moment after the explosion: doomed plant workers struggle to understand what has occurred, even as fire brigades rush to the scene, while crowds gather in nearby Pripyat to watch the blaze from afar – with few, if any, of these people understanding the hazards to which they are exposed. While the Pripyat executive committee underestimates the danger, Legasov (speaking before General Secretary Gorbachev) recognizes the risks and is sent to the scene (along with deputy chairman Boris Scherbina) to assess. Arriving in the still not evacuated region, it is quickly apparent to Legasov how dire the situation is, a matter which he is able to impress upon the initially skeptical Scherbina.  And as Legasov and Scherbina begin coordinating efforts to douse the flames and evacuate the region, Ulana Khomyuk (a nuclear physicist from Minsk) races to the scene to warn Legasov of the risk of a cataclysmic steam explosion as the plant continues melting down.

Attention and efforts swiftly turn to containment, even as it becomes clear that the story of what has happened has reached the rest of the world. Miners are brought in to dig under the reactor so a heat exchange can be put in place, moon-rovers are brought in to clear highly radioactive materials from the power plant’s roof, and hundreds of thousands are conscripted to secure the region. As Legasov and Scherbina oversee the clean-up efforts in Chernobyl, Khomyuk delves into the state archive and speaks to the dying men who had been at the power plant that night, in an attempt to understand why the power plant exploded. As Legasov acknowledges once Khomyuk confronts him with the truth she has discovered, there had been a flaw in the reactor design, one which the state had been aware of, but which it had not adequately responded to. After having blamed the explosion on human error when speaking in Vienna, when he testifies at the show trial of those deemed responsible for the explosion, Legasov sacrifices his career in order to denounce the secrecy that led to the flaw in the reactor not being fixed. Having started with the explosion already in the past, Chernobyl’s final episode shows the mix of human failures and technical problems that ultimately led to the event that has made “Chernobyl” synonymous with “disaster.”

While Chernobyl is based on actual events, it is essential to recognize that what the program presents is a fictionalized account. Certainly, much of what is shown happened, but a fair amount of what is shown is also added for dramatic effect. And, lest there be any doubt, what is shown is quite effective. Though the program begins with the disaster having already occurred, the entire series conveys a strong sense of impending doom. Much of that is achieved by the visual pallet being saturated with greens and greys that gives the entire series a sickly pallor, and by an eerie soundtrack (filled with the constant clicking of dosimeters) that provides further eeriness. While the show periodically weaves in the stories of particular individuals (mainly to show them quietly and resolutely coming to terms with the horror of their situation), the show is anchored by three characters. As Legasov, Jared Harris shoulders the weight of the tragedy, conveying the scientific explanations of what is going on and while constantly pushing the authorities to do more. In the role of Scherbina, Stellan Skarsgård provides the most moving performance, conveying enormous pathos with subtle facial movements and bursts of rage as he struggles to make other figures in authority recognize the severity of the situation. And the moral core of the program is handled by Emily Watson, in the role of Ulana Khomyuk, not only as she delves into the mystery of what happened – but also as she pushes Legasov and Scherbina to tell the world the truth about what occurred. Though it’s important to recognize that Ulana Khomyuk was not a real person, rather her character is intended as a composite of numerous scientists. True, as is the case with many filmic representations of real events, the program ends with title cards of the real people and provides some more factual details – but for many viewers it is likely that they did not realize that Khomyuk was a composite until listening to her as the voice of responsibility and reason for five hours.

To restate: anyone genuinely interested in Chernobyl would be wise to not put too much stock in Chernobyl. The intention here is not to provide an exhaustive analysis of historical inaccuracies in the film; suffice to say, for those who are curious about “what really happened” there are a wealth of works of serious scholarship that explore the event in a way that is not made for television. Two that are certainly worth reading are Producing Power by Sonja Schmid (which places the history of Chernobyl in the broader context of the history of the Soviet nuclear industry), and Life Exposed by Adriana Petryna (which considers the long-term impacts of exposure and the struggle by survivors to secure aid).

Lest there be any doubt, the point here is not to suggest that what occurred at Chernobyl wasn’t tragic, nor is it to suggest that the Soviet response didn’t involve serious mismanagement. But, even though Chernobyl is not a documentary it seems likely that the way the show portrays the events is the way that many viewers will think of what happened – and from this they may draw erroneous lessons and conclusions. Yes, Chernobyl was a tragic disaster; Yes, Chernobyl is a captivating television program. But the latter point does not make it an authoritative record of the former.

Much of what makes Chernobyl seem so convincing is that it appears to be a fairly measured account. The Cold War is over and much of what makes the program convincing is that it doesn’t present the Soviets as being unspeakably evil. True, various party officials are presented as bumbling and corrupt, the KGB looms menacingly in the background, and there is plenty of vodka drinking – but were the film more naked in its propagandizing it would not have the same impact. Instead, most of the characters in the film are portrayed as people in impossible situations. Self-sacrifice is everywhere in Chernobyl, and while many figures are shown as not understanding the risks to which they have been exposed, there are also numerous figures who put themselves at extraordinary danger knowing that they will likely die as a result. Had the filmmakers wanted, they certainly could have provided a much more unforgiving picture. Instead, scientists, firefighters, nurses, soldiers, and miners are all presented in a way that foregrounds their sameness as humans, rather than their otherness as Soviets. And thus, when a caricature of an official gives a speech while staring dewy eyed at a portrait of Lenin, or when Khomyuk expounds upon the importance of truth – such moments are able to be particularly effective insofar as the miniseries does not drown viewers in an onslaught of anti-Soviet propaganda. Though Anatoly Dyatlov (Paul Ritter), the assistant chief engineer at the power plant, is presented as the story’s villain (insofar as it has one) – his motives are in no way presented as being uniquely Soviet. Legasov and Scherbina are depicted at many junctures as making suggestions that they know will cost lives, but at no point are these choices portrayed as flowing from vindictiveness or masochism. Indeed, a theme that the series returns to at multiple junctures is Legasov and Scherbina recognizing that Chernobyl has killed them as well. And from the moment that he understands what is happening until the end, the weight of the horrid responsibility is etched in painful detail on Scherbina’s face (Skarsgård turns in a truly phenomenal performance).

That which gives Chernobyl its thick air of authenticity is its refusal to sensationalize. Though leaning heavily on the spectacular is a hallmark of disaster cinema. An earthquake destroying Los Angeles may provide more dramatic images than radiation quietly poisoning a city, but the still shots of empty Pripyat are strikingly bleak. Many disaster films present the cataclysmic events as the background for stories about the reunification of nuclear families, but in Chernobyl the main character really is the disaster. But the story that is constructed around the disaster is not an adventure featuring daring Hollywood stars dropping in from the sky to save attractive people from crumbling buildings. The pacing, music, lighting, and sound design in Chernobyl make the miniseries feel like a horror movie. The images of the individuals dying in agony from radiation exposure are strikingly gruesome. And at numerous moments it seems as though a monster is about to jump out to attack the harried survivors, but as the show continually reminds viewers: the monster is already on the loose. Though Khomyuk, Legasov, Scherbina, as well as a host of unnamed characters, are portrayed as struggling nobly (even heroically) – at no point can one confuse Jared Harris with The Rock.

It is not so much that Chernobyl is effective because it is true, but that Chernobyl seems like it is true because it is so effective. By refusing to turn the Soviets into villainous cartoons, and by framing the entire story as a tragedy instead of an adventure, Chernobyl is able to present itself as a trustworthy, and therefore truthful, account of what happened. And yet, to get overly bogged down in the specific historical details is to risk missing out on the broader message the miniseries conveys. And that message, despite what a superficial reading may believe, has less to do with Communism and more to do with disasters.

The risk of Chernobyl is that viewers will take away from it the message that they need not worry. In many important respects, Chernobyl was a unique event – and it is wonderful that there have not been more explosions at nuclear plants – but rather than raise awareness amongst viewers, treating the event as such a unique occurrence may leave viewers with an impoverished sense of the world around them. Or to put it slightly differently, nuclear history is filled with disasters (especially if you view wars as disasters, as many scholars who study disasters do), and the history of disasters is filled with events that were catastrophically handled. To be clear, this is in no way meant as an apology for the Soviet handling of Chernobyl, but it is meant as a reminder that there is nothing uniquely Soviet about mishandling a disaster, covering up information about what happened, or about making decisions that later lead to disasters. This point is important to make because the way Chernobyl is made subtly tells its viewers that Chernobyl is only understandable in the context of Soviet power structures and cover ups – and therefore, the viewers (who obviously don’t live in Soviet countries) need not worry. But the Three Mile Island Accident (which happened before Chernobyl) did not occur in a Soviet territory, the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster did not occur in a Soviet territory either, likewise the history of nuclear testing (and uranium) mining continues to have a lengthy tragic history for which many nations are responsible. These disasters may not have risen to the scale of Chernobyl, but they are part of a broader context of nuclear destruction which is necessary to acknowledge in order to fully make sense of Chernobyl (and therefore Chernobyl). Again, this is not in any way to absolve the Soviet handling of Chernobyl, but by separating Chernobyl from the larger narrative of nuclear history (and disasters/accidents), Chernobyl distracts from the fact that nuclear history is riddled with death, destruction, and cover-ups.

Granted, Chernobyl is a television miniseries about a particular event. Thus, one cannot fairly imagine that it would have the sort of literature review that would be found in a scholarly work. And it certainly would have been odd if Legasov had started rattling off other nuclear accidents (big and small), but by treating Chernobyl as such an isolated event, the miniseries conveys a version of history to viewers in which the problem is Soviet mismanagement, not anything to do with the inherent riskiness of nuclear matters, or the ways that complex technical systems are highly accident prone. Which is not to suggest that Chernobyl is propaganda for the nuclear power industry, but the show manages to pull off the impressive feat of centering a nuclear power plant as a site of a disaster while still assuring viewers that they have nothing to fear from the nuclear power plant that operates not far from where they live. After all, the account that Chernobyl presents emphasizes how the event was a result of the Soviet authorities knowing about but refusing to fix a flaw, with this flaw only leading to a tragedy due to the actions of several men who were primarily interested in securing promotions. Therefore, viewers can feel safe, and confident that a similar combination of events isn’t likely to threaten them.

As a subject for a dramatic miniseries, the Chernobyl disaster has all of the important ingredients: a massive disaster with wide-ranging (in time and space) consequences, innocent victims, and a setting in an “enemy” territory (this was during the Cold War). But there are no shortage of other events that fit every part of that description, except for the part about being set in an “enemy” territory. Chernobyl captures the everyday heroism of first responders caught in a situation that no training could have truly prepared them for, working against a backdrop of governmental underestimation of the destruction – but you could easily swap out the word “Chernobyl” from the first part of this sentence and replace it with any number of other events, and the sentence would still be true. Thus, the danger of the Chernobyl miniseries is to take away from it the idea that all of this bungling and mishandling is somehow unique to Chernobyl, when a better lesson to take away from it would be that tragic bungling and mishandling is all too common when disasters occur. And that is unfortunately as true today, as it was in the 1980s.

By the time the first episode of Chernobyl aired, the era of nuclear fear was largely in the past. Yes, the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster and threats about nuclear weapons have ensured that nuclear fear has never completely disappeared – but the cataclysmic fear du jour is no longer radiation. Instead, if one turns through the pages of a newspaper today, one will encounter no shortage of evidence that the slowly unfolding disaster of climate change is beginning to calamitously pick up speed. And it may well be that the risks tugging at the anxieties of Chernobyl viewers have more to do with climate change than with nuclear war/power. Against the backdrop of climate change there is little about Chernobyl or Chernobyl that should be particularly comforting. For if the viewer of Chernobyl wants to take away the message that the world has learned a valuable lesson, the case of climate change seems to offer a derisory laugh in response.

After all, climate change offers a case of a looming disaster that world governments have been fully aware of, but which they have continually waited to take sufficient action on (and climate change has no shortage of groups insisting that the threat doesn’t really exist). Furthermore, though the scale of destruction wrought by Chernobyl is continually framed in the miniseries as shockingly large, the scale of climate change is much grander. The overall response to Chernobyl is framed as being too little too late, resulting in unnecessary suffering and destruction; but the individuals caught in climate change exacerbated hurricanes, floods, droughts, and wildfires have also found themselves waiting for government support that does not materialize in time. Ultimately, it is difficult to really watch Chernobyl as an allegory for climate change, as the program seems to rest its hopes on noble scientists and government officials speaking the truth regardless of the consequences – but when it comes to climate change, noble scientists and government officials (to say nothing of armies of activists) have been speaking the truth for decades.

Chernobyl is a story about the tragic mishandling of a serious disaster, but those viewing the miniseries are living through the tragic mishandling of another serious disaster.

As a piece of popular entertainment, Chernobyl is well-made and effective. The scenes of ash raining down on the citizens of Pripyat are much more haunting than the scenes of ash raining down on the citizens of King’s Landing. As a historical account, Chernobyl deserves credit for avoiding the easy route of turning the Soviets into crass caricatures, even as it provides an oversimplified account that lacks the necessary context of nuclear history. But it is as a comment on disasters that Chernobyl needs to be treated with the most skepticism – because it would be dangerous for any viewer to conclude that the Soviets, and the Soviets alone, could mishandle a disaster. It is easy to step away from Chernobyl and think “I’m glad that I don’t live in a situation where the government isn’t prepared to handle a serious disaster!” But no one should watch Chernobyl and conclude that the events it portrays cannot happen again.

Throughout Chernobyl many characters deliver impassioned comments on the importance of truth – with many of these words coming from Khomyuk (who often seems like the stand in for the writer’s opinion). Yet, if one wants to reduce Chernobyl and Chernobyl to a lesson, one is better off turning to a wary comment that Scherbina addresses to Legasov near the conclusion of the show. Yes, the line is not nearly as comforting as one that touts the purifying power of noble scientists speaking truth to power; however, it is a comment that is every bit as true for the 21st century HBO viewer watching Chernobyl as it was for those living in Chernobyl. And it is a line that woefully captures the way that we continue to react to risks and disasters. As Scherbina says:

“No one ever thinks it’s going to happen to them. And here we are.”

If you are going to take one thing away from Chernobyl let it be that line.

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About Z.M.L

“I do not believe that things will turn out well, but the idea that they might is of decisive importance.” – Max Horkheimer @libshipwreck

One comment on ““And here we are” – on HBO’s Chernobyl

  1. Pingback: It is later than you think – the COVID-19 catastrophe is already here | LibrarianShipwreck

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