“Chernobyl” - Johan Renck (2019)

Chernobyl (2019) is a historical miniseries dramatizing circumstances and events concerning the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster, the worst nuclear power disaster in history.  Created and written by Craig Mazin and directed by Johan Renck, the five one-hour episodes of this series offer a detailed, multilayered account of what happened and the tragic consequences that followed.  Although this is a documentary and the production team must stick to a factual portrayal, this is one of the most chilling dramas that I have ever seen.  And Chernobyl has a disturbing message and implications that extend well beyond the specific circumstances covered in this story.

The basic facts are pretty well known.  Early in the morning of April 24th, 1986, the Chernobyl nuclear power reactor in northern Ukraine undergoing a routine safety check experienced an accidental and crippling explosion that led to a dangerous release of nuclear radiation and the threat of a catastrophic total nuclear core meltdown.  But details concerning exactly what happened and why are less well known, and that is primarily due to efforts to suppress information coming out about those events.  Ukraine was then a Soviet Socialist Republic of the Soviet Union (USSR), and the Chernobyl reactor was managed by Soviet authorities, who took immediate steps to mitigate the disaster.  Top Soviet officials feared that information coming out about the Chernobyl disaster would damage the reputation of the Soviet nuclear power program and, by association, the international prestige of the USSR.  Nevertheless, there have since been persistent efforts to reveal the true story of what happened.

Even so, there has been widespread disagreement concerning the actual death toll associated with the Chernobyl disaster [1].
  • 31 deaths  – this was the official death toll that the Soviet authorities came to agree on.  However, critics complained that this figure was grossly underestimated and did not take into account deaths due to radiation sickness (acute radiation syndrome, ARS).
  • 4,000 deaths.  This number was subsequently arrived at as an estimate on the part of such organizations as the  United Nations' International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the United Nations' World Health Organization (WHO) [2].
  • ~200,000 deaths.  However, more realistic consideration on the part of Greenpeace International of the longer-term effects of ARS and induced cancer have led to estimates in the hundreds of thousands [3].  I believe that this is probably the more likely death toll figure.
Whatever the precise death toll might be, we learn from the account given in the Chernobyl miniseries that had it not been for the heroic efforts on the part of some scientists, officials, and workers on the scene that the death toll would have been in the many millions and that the full areas of Ukraine and Belarus (and perhaps more) would have been rendered uninhabitable.  So we need to have a more thorough account about this catastrophe. 

For the production of Chernobyl, Renck and Mazin manage to achieve this goal of a more thorough account by effectively telling the complicated story via the use of multiple narrative threads:
  • What caused the initial explosion? 
    The rather complicated sequence of events that led to the explosion are eventually rather lucidly explained after the tenacious investigations of several key figures.  These are

    • Valery Legasov (played by Jared Harris), a nuclear power expert and the deputy director of the Kurchatov Institute in Moscow who has been summoned by the Soviet Union Communist Party’s General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev (David Dencik) to aid cleanup efforts.  Legasov is a reluctant participant at first, but he eventually becomes the principal protagonist of this story.
    • Boris Shcherbina (Stellan Skarsgård), Deputy Chairman of the Soviet Council of Ministers.  Shcherbina is a dedicated party authoritarian, but he becomes persuaded by Legasov’s earnest efforts to follow a more humane path.
    • Ulana Khomyuk (Emily Watson), a nuclear physicist from Minsk. Khomyuk is a relentless truth-seeker, regardless of the personal consequences her efforts may entail.
  • Mitigating the disaster
    This involved several, near-suicidal measures undertaken by volunteers following Legasov’s desperate recommendations.  These included three particularly dramatic sequences:
    • Three men don deep sea diving equipment to go to the radioactive reactor basement to drain water that has dangerously collected there.
    • 400 coal miners volunteer to install a heat exchanger under the reactor in order to prevent a further meltdown.
    • 3,828 volunteers are recruited to go in small teams to the roof of the reactor and spend a maximum of 90 seconds each, due to radiation exposure concerns, clearing radioactive graphite from the roof.
  • Combating the coverup
    In order to protect the image of Soviet nuclear supremacy, the Soviet authorities continually downplay the dangers and attempt to suppress critical information about the Chernobyl disaster.  They seek to attribute total responsibility for the reactor failure to human operational errors on the part of the reactor’s local managers and operators.  However, Legasov and Khomyuk have determined that the RBMK reactor also had a critical design fault: pressing the reactor’s emergency shutdown button (as the Chernobyl reactor’s operators finally did) would generate a catastrophic explosion in the reactor core. Suppressing information about the reactor’s flaw would prevent necessary measures from being taken to prevent further disasters at the fifteen other, similar RBMK nuclear reactors across the Soviet Union.  Legasov, Khomyuk, and Shcherbina risk and ultimately damage their careers and lives in order to overcome this coverup and ensure this information is brought out.
These three narrative threads are expertly interwoven across the five episodes of Chernobyl.  Along the way there are some dramatic subnarratives that color the above three dramatic themes, particularly the “mitigating the disaster” theme, with a human component.  The most dramatically affective and memorable of these sequences for me were:
  • The firefighter Vasily Ignatenko (Adam Nagaitis) from the nearby town of Pripyat responds immediately to the Chernobyl fire.  Unmindful of the personal danger, Ignatenko is exposed to lethal dosages of radiation and is soon gruesomely consumed, literally, by the ravages of ARS.  Ignatenko was a real person, and these scenes show the human tragedy that befell him and his pregnant wife.
  • The mining crew that worked to install the heat exchanger beneath the stricken reactor.  These scenes dramatize the unqualified heroism and devotion to duty on the part of ordinary working class people trying to do what is right.
  • Shortly after the disaster, hundreds of thousands of citizens were drafted to “liquidate” animals and pets in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone (initially an area 30km in radius around the power plant, but later expanded to 2,600 km2) that were presumed to be radioactively contaminated.  This sequence follows a young draftee, Pavel (Barry Keoghan), who is reluctantly trained to scour the countryside and ruthlessly shoot and kill every pet that he encounters.  For me, this had more general implications – it was a dramatized reminder of how young men are recruited into military service around the world and coercively trained to suppress their own natural  instincts for compassion so that they can unfeelingly kill their fellow beings.

All of these narratives and storylines are meticulously well crafted by the series production team, and they feature excellent cinematography by Jakob Ihre and editing by Jinx Godfrey and Simon Smith.  How they managed to stage some of the scenes was a marvel to me.  There is a considerable amount of agitated hand-held camera work, which I often find jarring and ineffective in other productions, but which I found skillfully employed to good effect on this occasion.  And the acting performances are uniformly well done.  I particularly liked the nuanced performance of Jared Harris in the lead role of Valery Legasov.  Harris had earlier effectively played an entirely different character in the role of the fragile King George VI in the television series The Crown (2016-17).  Here in Chernobyl he plays a thoughtful and well-intentioned figure who struggles to find the right path.  And I also appreciated the sensitive performance of Emily Watson in the role of the dedicated nuclear physicist Ulana Khomyuk.

With respect to the overall veracity of the subject matter, I believe that all of the narratives and storylines in the series have been meticulously researched by the series creators for historical accuracy, but as we might expect, there have been criticisms from some quarters concerning the ultimate authenticity of this account [4,5,6,7,8].  The Russians, in particular, have complained about the whole thing and have even suggested that the Chernobyl disaster was the result of a CIA plot [5].  More tellingly, though, are Masha Gessen’s criticisms of the Chernobyl miniseries [4].  She complains that it falls prey to the “great man” perspectival prejudice prevalent among many historical accounts that reduces complex historical interactions on the part of many participants to just a simplified description of the activities of a few people.  What happened according to these prejudiced accounts can then be attributed to the actions of a few “great men”.  While I respect and generally admire Ms. Gessen’s insights and agree that the “great man” prejudice can often be a problem, I don’t think it applies in this case.

It is true that some dramatic shortcuts were taken in the Chernobyl miniseries.  For example, while Valery Legasov and Boris Shcherbina were real people, the character of Ulana Khomyuk is a fabricated composition representing the numerous scientists and engineers who assisted  Legasov during the investigations.  This was done for dramatic simplification, and I don’t think the characterological composition here represents a serious shortcoming to the overall telling of the story.  What is more important to this story is it’s overall message, and it is not about a few great, or villainous, men.

No, in this harsh, doom-laden account, the problem depicted is systemic.  The entire society is infected, and the film offers a grim picture of a generally dystopian world from which there seems to be no escape.  In fact from the very outset we know that hopeless annihilation is generally in the offing, when we see Valery Legasov, committing suicide on April 26, 1988, two years after the Chernobyl disaster.  He was probably suffering from ARS due to high doses of radiation exposure during his investigation and already condemned to death.  He had fought a noble fight, we will ultimately learn, but he had now given up.  And as we then watch the story unfold from the initial explosion two years earlier onward, we are haunted by the knowledge that the people heroically struggling to mitigate the disaster’s consequences are being hit with invisible radiation that will harm and probably kill them. 

And as we see in this story, the catastrophic situation was made worse and irreparable by the harsh authoritarian society in which it took place.  In that society permeated with harsh punishments, order was maintained by fear and menace.  “Official” explanations had to be accepted without recourse to the independent discovery of verifiable truth. 

We have a modern faith that lies will always be uncovered eventually.  As Valery Legasov says before the court,
 “Every lie we tell incurs a debt to the truth.  Sooner or later that debt is paid.”
But it can take a long time.  What concerns me is that we now live in a society where hate-filled rhetoric is starting to dominate the political discourse and beclouding the messages of those who are offering reasonable, positive proposals to today’s problems – proposals that can and should be subjected to rational debate and public verification.  This quest for truth is made more difficult when we have an elite that dominates and rigs the public media in order to obscure the truth [9].  And the world is further saddled with a US President who utters and seems to get away with many lies on a daily basis (Trump has uttered an average of more than twelve confirmed lies per day over the course of his presidency) [10,11].  Are people getting so accustomed to these constant lies that they are gradually willing to abandon the noble quest for what is true [12]?

But rather than acquiesce to these gradual steps towards an apocalypse, we can take some practical steps now that can help us avoid future Chernobyls.  One is for us to recognize the inherent dangers associated with energy production facilities that are fundamentally centralized  in location and control and harbor potentially catastrophic elements in connection with their operation.  Human control of such centralized and potentially catastrophic energy resources always has the possibility of going awry, as it did in Chernobyl.  And such is generally the case with nuclear power; therefore its deployment should be abandoned if there is a safer alternative.  And fortunately there is a safer alternative. The distributed and less damaging nature of renewable energy is far preferable.

  1. “Deaths due to the Chernobyl disaster”, Wikipedia, (15 June 2019).   
  2. Dick Ahlstrom, "Chernobyl anniversary: The disputed casualty figures", The Irish Times, (2 April 2016).    
  3. “Chernobyl death toll grossly underestimated”, Greenpeace International, (18 April 2006).   
  4. Masha Gessen, “What HBO’s ‘Chernobyl’ Got Right, and What It Got Terribly Wrong”, The New Yorker, (4 June 2019).   
  5. Luke Johnson, “The Kremlin peddles a myth of Russia’s past greatness. No wonder it hates ‘Chernobyl.’”, The Washington Post, (12 June 2019).   
  6. Henry Fountain, “Plenty of Fantasy in HBO’s ‘Chernobyl,’ but the Truth Is Real”, The New York Times, (2 June 2019).   
  7. Andrew Whalen, “Chernobyl Disaster's First Responders Share True Stories of Death and Radiation”, Newsweek, (5 June 2019).   
  8. Kent German, “Chernobyl was bleak, brutal and absolutely necessary”, Cnet, (5 June 2019).   
  9. Joseph E. Stiglitz, People, Power, and Profits: Progressive Capitalism for an Age of Discontent, Penguin, (April 23, 2019).
  10. Glenn Kessler, Salvador Rizzo, and Meg Kelly, “In 869 days, President Trump has made 10,796 false or misleading claims”, The Washington Post, (10 June 2019).       
  11. “In 869 days, President Trump has made 10,796 false or misleading claims”, Fact Checker, “The Washington Post”, (7 June 2019).  
  12. Bret Stephens, “What ‘Chernobyl’ Teaches About Trump”, The New York Times, (20 June 2019).   

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