Stories of radioactive glory and horror permeated my childhood the way stories of Christ permeated those of my peers. My father was an engineer on a nuclear submarine, and sometimes he would talk about it. Of course all that sounded like fantasy to me, quasi-mythic but most definitely true stories about the Sea of Okhotsk, the woman’s voice on the P.A. system, the time he saw a mermaid in the open ocean when the sub had surfaced. (That last one, uh, might have just been a story.)
Nuclear power and all its constituent parts are the graven idol of our time. My father was only ever home on weekends, so the stories were in their way a lot like church, like a Sunday school lecture from a pastor with a master’s degree in atomic theology. Control rods descend into the roiling furnace, like Moses coming down Mount Sinai; the reactor converts water to steam that comes rushing out of a broken pipe and scalds the technicians trying to prevent meltdown, burning like brimstone.
Mutually assured destruction and the promise of nuclear war gave an entire generation PTSD; my parents wouldn’t try for children until the Soviet Union dissolved, and then only after they were really sure the corpse wasn’t gonna pull any funny stuff. This PTSD has passed onto their children, and it is from the womb of this intergenerational trauma that the HBO miniseries ‘Chernobyl’ was born.
‘Chernobyl’ is a multi-hour horror movie where the monster never once leaves the screen, and only rarely is seen. Its greatest strength is the permeating sense of dread and the deterministic trajectory of its plot. Because we know what’s going to happen, every solitary second it doesn’t happen is suspenseful, not helped by the droning soundtrack.
There’s a scene in the bowels of the flooded reactor, where three men are charged with draining radioactive water that, long story short, will shortly turn to enough steam to vaporize the entire plant and jettison enough radiation that there’s really no point in describing central and eastern Europe as anything other than ‘turbo-fucked.’ Their lights begin to fail, they begin to panic, and the dosimeters continue to click so fast as to be wailing. The camera work is classic monster movie, claustrophobic, constantly changing. They make it, we know they make it, because there is still a Ukraine, but it’s highly effective at making you wonder.
The visuals of the disaster itself are remarkable. The tendrils of graphite, of uranium, curl into eerily organic structures before igniting white hot. The explosion lingers in the reactor like a star being born, a plume of fire rocketing through the black night around it. Blue light illuminates the tower of smoke from below, nuclear fire in the open air. Even mundane scenes look good. There’s a Brutalist aesthetic, not just to the architecture itself, but the entire design of those scenes, the framing, the sound, seems inhuman, too big for the players within.
Mood and tone shift wildly from scene to scene, as is appropriate. There are long shots of the Ukrainian forests, or of the too-perfect, pristine city of Pripyat, abandoned too late and left empty but for the major players, that get the isolation and tininess of the characters across well. As emotions get higher, shots get shorter, more chaotic. The camera begins to spin, the angles begin to shift. There’s a good contrast between stillness and movement that keep the tension levels at a good rhythm.
Another much-lauded scene, the scene on the roof where the workers have ninety seconds to shovel graphite, veered dangerously close to comedy. (It is worth noting that my sense of humor is notoriously dark). Comrade was having the worst possible day and fucked up every chance he got, straight into the rule of three. The direction was strong enough that it ended up being harrowing instead. The spinning camera work made me think, each time he approached the hole that leads to the exposed reactor, he would fall in. Seeing him get back inside was actively relieving… and then I saw the tear in his boot, and it all went acrid.
Anyway, how could he not fail? It’s a jungle of rubble up there, there’s a dosimeter screeching in his ear, and he has ninety seconds or he will be poisoned and die. It’s the worst set of circumstances to put someone. To expect perfection isn’t laughable, it’s horrendous.
People are not ‘bio-robots,’ as the overseers of the plan describe. They’re human, and human fallibility, almost more than the radiation, is the monster of this story.
This segues nicely into my only major complaint: character writing. When it’s good, it’s damn good, but for the most part, it’s the weakest part of the show.
Legasov and Scherbina’s relationship is nicely done. They start hating each other, and they continue to bicker throughout the show. Some personality differences can’t be entirely reconciled, no matter how mutually you’re dying. Still, seeing them grow to support one another was a joy.
There’s enough nuance in both of them to make them realized characters. Scherbina, despite being a self-proclaimed professional Party man, has morals that the Party fails to entire crush. He’s clearly disturbed by how his refusal to order an evacuation, as it would go against the Party line, seriously endangered the people of Pripyat. From then on, he takes Legasov seriously, and even ends up screaming (!!!) at the Kremlin (!!!) when their blinkered refusal to do anything that would risk humiliating the Party costs them time and millions of rubles. He’s the one who asks what will happen to the workers who were exposed to the worst of the radiation (spoiler alert: to call it ‘dissolving’ is at once technically accurate and horrifically understated).
Legasov’s descent into dehumanization and self-medication with tobacco and alcohol is quite well done. Nobody ever says anything about it, but it’s obvious. He’s the one who calls the workers ‘bio-robots,’ and stands up at the roof of the reactor giving the exact same speech every ninety seconds. A very good job is done integrating his previous mistakes, and the pressures of living in as toxic a regime as the Soviet Union, with his arc. Will he do what he’s done before—shut up, despite his frustrations, the way he did about the reactor flaw when Volkov was punished for writing about it—or will he be able to exemplify the morals he spoke to Khomyuk about in her KGB cell?
We know the answer. We know what happened to Legasov. But they do a good job making it clear that this was, at the time, no certain thing. None of what’s in the past ever is when it’s happening.
It’s not all spectacular, though. Lyudmila Ignatenko’s story is a real-life tragedy, but I felt the writers could have done more for her. She comes off as stupidly stubborn because we know about what radiation will do to her.
She didn’t. She was not allowed to. This was a massive systemic failure, especially on the part of the nurses (what, you didn’t think to CHECK to make sure she’d left the room full of radioactive men?). Khomyuk’s tirade against the nurse when she discovers Ignatenko is framed more to point to the willingness of the state to imprison people for saying the wrong thing, rather than a condemnation of the nurses who have allowed Ignatenko to poison herself and her child.
The greatest strength of the show ends up being a detriment here. We know things Ignatenko has literally no conception of, and without being reminded of that, I don’t feel her character easily retains the sympathy she deserves. There’s so many other things going on that require emotional energy, there’s not a lot to spare to remind yourself that she’s the desperate victim of state silence.
There’s also a scene where Khomyuk goes to speak to a party leader who is refusing to evacuate or listen to her. In anger, she reminds him that he was once a worker in a shoe factory. Now, he is a fat slob in an ugly tie, who doesn’t pour any vodka for his guest (rude!) and sneeringly mocks her. The message is, uh, it’s not great. It’s not what they were going for—they were attempting to show, in one scene, the dangers of party corruption and complacency, the refusal to listen to experts—but it’s framed very poorly. It comes off extremely elitist. And we know it didn’t actually happen—Ulyana Khomyuk is not real. It could have easily been rewritten to not be so uncomfortably elitist.
“I’m a nuclear physicist. I know what I’m talking about. Why don’t you believe me?” Khomyuk’s idealism, which so many dismiss as naivety, is ultimately the moral force that brings the truth of Chernobyl to the world. Pushing that in this situation would have been a stronger narrative choice.
“If there really was trouble, the Party would let us know.” Something to show how the Party’s presentation of itself as a protective social force affects the average person living under its regime. ‘For the happiness of all mankind,’ et al. Why would they lie? Why would they put us in danger? Do you really think the Party would do that? Go out here and recklessly endanger millions of lives just to save face? People lie to themselves for all sorts of reasons, and we have plenty of examples of it being through personal greed. Dyatlov was so thoroughly disgusting a character that a bit of nuance wouldn’t have detracted from the message at all.
‘Chernobyl’ has been rightly praised for its message of the human cost of government lies. It’s timely, it’s needed—and unfortunately, the people who most need to hear this message will not believe it’s about them.
For all we’re supposed to have moved past the Cold War, Americans, especially conservative Americans, define ourselves in direct opposition to the Soviet Union. Coupled with the human tendency to credit failures of the in-group to personal failings, and failings in the out-group to their inherent inferiority, this doesn’t bode well for the moral hitting home. People will say, ‘but that could never happen here. It was specifically because of the communist Soviet Union. That’s why we can’t have communism.’
This is the reason the elitism in Khomyuk’s scene made me wince. The people who most need to absorb this message have been taught, for a long, long time, that the elite view them as subhuman. Academics view them as idiots, lessers, people who don’t deserve compassion or help, only mocking disdain. They’ll take that scene as a confirmation of their worst fear: that experts really do feel that way. Liberal Hollywood does hate the little guy.
That this ‘little guy’ got his power by sucking up to the establishment, which so many politicians are (correctly) lambasted for will get lost in the blur of confirmation bias. The framing of the scene is markedly tone-deaf to the political messages that its viewers have been exposed to. For a show so concerned with the destructive power of propaganda, this is a glaring oversight.
Really, though, I’m not sure ‘Chernobyl’ could ever get the message it’s screaming across the way it wants. People who already believe in climate change, in government lies, in the corrosion of social structures, will nod and say ‘yes, of course.’ The people who need convincing may not be able to see themselves in Soviet characters. They’re too Other, the cultural bogeymen of an entire generation.
God, that’s a bum note to end on. Surely there’s some good here?
Well, there is, but it has exactly nothing to do with humans, and everything to do with life in the Exclusion Zone. Radioactive material covered 400 hectares of forest, killing almost everything it touched. Populations were decimated, and the survivors were found to have a much lower reproduction rate. However, starting the 90’s, studies showed a resurgence of animal life. New trees colonized the dead forests, introducing new microbes to the soil. The area is one big nature preserve, essentially.
The radioactive materials were absorbed by the trees and other structures, locking them away. Until, of course, decomposition leeches them into the groundwater. Or climate-changed caused forest fires create radioactive smoke that travels on the wind…
Goddammit! That’s not a good note at all!