Chernobyl review: HBO series on 1986 nuclear disaster is a gripping tale of the horrors of bureaucracy

Anupam Kant Verma

Jun 06, 2019 13:02:41 IST

“I’ve wondered why everyone was silent about Chernobyl, why our writers weren’t writing much about it — they write about the war, or the camps, but here they’re silent. Why? Do you think it’s an accident? If we’d beaten Chernobyl, people would talk about it and write about it more. Or if we’d understood Chernobyl. But we don’t know how to capture any meaning from it. We’re not capable of it. We can’t place it in our human experience or our human timeframe. So what’s better, to remember or to forget?”

Chernobyl review: HBO series on 1986 nuclear disaster is a gripping tale of the horrors of bureaucracy

A still from Chernobyl. HBO

Asks Yevgeniy Brovkin, an instructor at a State University in Soviet Russia, in Nobel Prize winning writer Svetlana Alexievich’s Voices from Chernobyl, an oral history of the deadliest disaster in the history of nuclear power. The book features conversations with hundreds of people affected by the events that took place at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in the wee hours of 26 April, 1986. These are voices that a Soviet regime obsessed with secrecy and control would go to any lengths to be suppressed, preferably forgotten. But the rancour of these voices formed a chorus that contributed to the eventual downfall of a rotten system. More than three decades after the disaster, some of these voices have now found their way into Chernobyl, the new HBO miniseries.

“In the memory of all who suffered and sacrificed.” This pithy sentence appears at the end of the fifth and final episode of the series. It is a sombre coda befitting creator and writer Craig Mazin’s valiant and earnest attempt to understand and draw meaning from Chernobyl using the medium of television.

The Chernobyl nuclear disaster was unlike anything the world had witnessed. The year was 1986. The Cold War between USSR and the United States was still hot. Both countries had been trying to outwit and outperform the other in terms of nuclear power. The Chernobyl power plant was among USSR’s crown jewels. Nuclear energy promised clean electricity and prosperity to millions and the motherland couldn’t be more proud of its scientific breakthroughs. And then one night in April, it all went horribly wrong. Reactor number four suddenly malfunctioned and, despite the operators’ best attempts, the core exploded, releasing extremely dangerous radioactive radiation from the plant.

The first episode of the series, simply titled 1:23:45 — the time of the explosion — depicts the events that took place right after the core exploded. The people living in Pripyat, the residential area near Chernobyl, fail to understand what’s happening. They gather outside their residential blocks and gaze wondrously at the spectacle unfolding before their eyes. The following episodes return to this theme of incomprehensibility about the scale of the invisible enemy of radiation. People refuse to evacuate villages in the affected areas. They say they didn’t leave during the war. Why run away from something that they can’t even see?

By the end of the first episode, we have been introduced to Valery Legasov, a physicist, and Boris Shcherbina, a deputy chairman in the bureaucracy, who’re handed the unenviable task of containing the tragedy unfolding in Chernobyl. Second episode onward, two threads start running through the show. One depicts Legasov and Shcherbina’s attempts to understand and contain the dangers posed by the nuclear disaster. The other becomes the visual representation of the oral monologues from Alexievich’s book, where Mazin tries to present the human face of the tragedy by showing stories of ordinary people.

Emily Watson in Chernobyl. HBO

Emily Watson in Chernobyl. HBO

Lyudmilla Ignatenko’s story is the most moving and devastating of the lot. Fittingly, it also acts as the prologue to Alexievich’s book. Vasily, Lyudmilla’s husband, is one of the firemen who are first to respond after the explosion. Underprepared and ill-equipped for what confronts them, they are whisked away to hospitals once their health begins to fail and the army’s arrived. They are shut away and are allowed no visitors. But Lyudmilla bribes, begs and sweet-talks her way to her husband, only to witness his gradual, painful demise at the hands of radiation poisoning. Her story also provides Mazin with the opportunity to explore the horrifying conditions inside a hospital whose resources are not nearly enough to handle the massive influx of patients.

There are stories of soldiers, evacuators and those tasked with killing the pets in the villages affected by the radiation. There are the 3828 liquidators who are sent to the roof of the reactor to clear the radioactive debris by hand, because none of the rovers would stand the radiation without malfunctioning. Then there are the miners who dig a tunnel under the plant, forced to work naked because of the unbearable heat. Hundreds and thousands of men forced to walk into a virtual minefield of health hazards, many of them facing certain death, almost all of them doomed to be forgotten despite their sacrifices. Or perhaps because of them.

Legasov and Shcherbina brood over the decisions to send these men towards doom, their moral weight threatening to crush their spirit. They are joined by Ulana Khomyuk, a physicist from Minsk who smells something wrong and sets out to investigate it fearlessly. She arrives in Chernobyl and soon joins hands with Legasov to figure out exactly what went wrong on the night of the 26th. Their efforts, aided by her stubbornness and unequivocal pursuit of the truth, uncover a sordid tale of bureaucratic malfeasance, negligence and the very human lust for power that resulted in a tragedy that shattered the lives of millions.

Unlike Legasov and Shcherbina, and unlike all the people featured in Alexievich’s book, Ulana Khomyuk never existed. She’s a composite character that seeks to represent the numerous scientists who aided Legasov in the search for the truth behind the collapse of the reactor. Mazin’s decision is significant, because it runs the risk of being construed as a cheap dramatic device employed to avoid complexity and convenience. But it has the opposite and rather edifying effect of establishing a moral centre for the show. It further highlights the role of fiction in a world whose reality is often too befuddling to grasp. Khomyuk remains stubbornly anti-establishment and pro-truth to the end, even after being thrown in jail for a brief period. Her fictional character gathers the fundamental truths and motivations of all the scientists she represents, and in Emily Watson’s firm, furrowed face it finds the perfect form for what it seeks to represent.

Khomyuk is the catalyst behind Legasov’s decision to narrate the unvarnished truth about Chernobyl at the trial that ends the show. It is a testimony that implicates the director and the chief engineers at Chernobyl for the negligence that resulted in the tragedy. It is the fictional Khomyuk’s truthful essence that helps Mazin arrive at the ecstatic truth that forms the very foundation of his series. Evil isn’t always perpetrated by people who’ve devised a grand scheme that shall lead them to absolute power. It is often mistakenly wrought by officials possessed by a self-importance bestowed upon them by their station and their ceaseless drive to rise above it.

The brunt of this negligence and selfishness is borne by the ordinary people. People like Akimov, plant engineer Dyatlov’s subordinate at Chernobyl, who’s humiliated and admonished until he follows orders. Later, once the reactor has gone out of control, and possessed of little knowledge of the events, he cries out in despair, “But I did everything right! I did everything right.” Or the soldier suddenly marched into Chernobyl and tasked with ensuring that none of the old inhabitants returned to the evacuated villages. He sees the people refusing to leave, unable to understand the reasons behind their evacuation, seemingly nothing out of the ordinary, totally unaware of the cloud of death hanging above them. “The worst part was, the least comprehensible part, everything was so — beautiful,” he tells Alexievich, “That was the worst. All around, it was just beautiful.”

Mazin employs reality and fiction in a measured manner to tell the story of Chernobyl. It is the work of an artist who understands the fundamental strengths and weaknesses of the visual medium. A pall of gloom swathed in somber colours falls upon the images. Right away, the show declares it isn’t shying away from the seriousness of the matter. Jokes are few and far between. It is a deliberate ploy that works in a story that’s been buried under paperwork and bureaucratic hubris for years. When they do arrive, the jokes are fatalistic and portentous of death, tiny cracks in the brutalistic establishment that was the Soviet bureaucracy. Sometimes, Mazin goes overboard while creating the menacing milieu with long corridors populated by whispers, secrets and lies. The second episode is particularly guilty in this respect and thereby features some of the most vapid and trite dialogue in the series. But the overarching structure is relatively loose and sprawling. It creates a wide tapestry that is mostly successful at representing the plenitude of voices and opinions that constituted Chernobyl.

Stellan Skarsgard and Jared Harris in a still from the show. HBO

Stellan Skarsgard and Jared Harris in a still from the show. HBO

Creditably, the series gets better with time, the final three episodes witnessing a steady increase in tension and quality. The performances are first rate. Jared Harris as Legasov is revelatory, slipping underneath the thick suit of his conflicted rationalist character with aplomb. Watson, as mentioned earlier, is brilliant and seems possessed with near superhuman strength in a show where men do most of the talking. Stellan Skarsgard’s Shcherbina possess the most predictable yet interesting character arc. Starting out as the inscrutable apparatchik, he slowly begins to warm up to Legasov and Khomyuk’s reserves of idealism, before intimations of mortality and a renewed invigoration of morality awakens him to the possibilities that lie beyond his station.

Mazin works tirelessly to explain the workings of a nuclear reactor without dumbing down scientist-speak. He cleverly exploits the possibilities offered by certain dramatic stretches to help the viewer understand precisely what went wrong at Chernobyl. This includes a long presentation by Legasov in the trial of the directors and engineers that ends the series. This is significant because unless it removes the cloud of mystery that surrounds the working of a nuclear plant, he can only unwittingly add to the secrets and lies that envelop the disaster. The commitment in this case is not only to drama but truth itself. That he succeeds in his endeavour is a remarkable feat, more so because it never distracts from the mystery-drama unfolding before our eyes.

I am writing this essay on the eve of World Environment Day. In a world threatened by global warming and the age old skirmishes over natural resources, maybe Chernobyl can also alert us about the responsibility which accompanies the ambition that often seeks dominion over nature. The first episode ends with a bird dropping dead to the ground, a metaphor for what lies in wait for us in the following episodes. But Mazin doesn’t stop at using animals as metaphor. He devotes an entire sub-plot to a group of soldiers tasked with killing animals exposed to radiation. The whole story, told from the point of view of a rookie soldier, is emotionally devastating and exhausting, culminating with the pets being dumped into mass graves. It is a decision worth celebrating.

“I want to make a film, to see everything through the eyes of an animal,” says a cameraman in Alexievich’s book, after witnessing the devastation of nature due to the accident. “‘What are you shooting?’ people say to me. ‘Look around you. There’s a war on in Chechnya.’ But Saint Francis preached to the birds. He spoke to them as equals. What if these birds spoke to him in their bird language, and it wasn’t he who condescended to them?” Mazin may not have shown us a story from the eyes of an animal. But he makes us see them in a renewed light, as the silent sufferers of a tragedy the actions of men have inflicted upon them, for no fault of their own. He’s given their stories a voice.

These testimonies, human and animal, and the endless jousting with the smokescreens and curtains of silence that Legasov and co. work through, gradually accumulate as the moral evidence during the trial of the engineers and the director of Chernobyl in the series finale. Unlike the judges at the trial, however, we’ve been witness to the rot within the bureaucratic system that contributed to the disaster. Two trials take place simultaneously, only one of which is presided over by a Soviet jury. Mazin leaves us to ruminate over and judge the case presented by Legasov and co. The scientist is aware of the price he must pay for speaking the truth. But he leaves us to wonder about the cost of lies. And that, says Legasov, is the gift of Chernobyl. It’s the truth that Mazin and Alexievich seek to bring to light through their different mediums. A truth that cannot be contained or locked away forever because it belongs to us.

HBO's Chernobyl is currently streaming on Hotstar.

Updated Date: Jun 06, 2019 13:02:41 IST