No Minister

Chernobyl (2019): TV Review

Every lie we tell incurs a debt to the truth. But sooner or later that debt is paid

The fifth and final episode of HBO’s mini-series, Chernobyl, wrapped up on the night of June 4. I’d bummed a free week of streaming HBO NOW in order to watch it, as it has been highly anticipated.

It did not disappoint. The series is stunning. You should do whatever you can to watch it.

That’s not to say you’ll enjoy it. I can think of almost no moments of humour in the series, not even the black or sardonic humour you often see in shows about dreadful crimes or war.

In making any movie or series about a historical event, the problem the makers face is that the audience know how it ends – if they choose to read or watch documentaries. In the case of Chernobyl it has become such a byword for nuclear power and disaster that tens of millions not even born when the accident happened in 1986 know the word, if not the details.

The usual approach is to make such things an action drama, like the movie, Apollo 13. Or perhaps just pure drama, as was done some years ago with two episodes of The West Wing that dealt with a fictional nuclear power station accident in California. Or you could do a black comedy, such as the recent movie: The Death of Stalin.

In this case the makers seem to have decided to play it as a horror movie, which might seem a little strange but turns out to be perfect. The sound effects, the cinematography of shabby sepia and grey Soviet concrete, the soundtrack: all fit the genre. But the greatest horror effect of all is the classic one of feeling the situation as the participants feel it: facing something invisible that they can only guess at, but which frightens them from the start, and then frightens them more as they watch it take lives, and that they finally begin to realise must be stopped at any cost. With every step, the horror deepens and there are many moments where you don’t want to watch yet cannot look away.

The series opens with several minutes of prologue with one of the main characters, Professor Legasov, recording his thoughts in 1988. From that point we jump back two years (“and one minute“) to start the story, not with any explanatory leadup, but from the moment after the reactor exploded.

The horror scenes then unroll before us, with their uncomprehending victims.

A pregnant woman walks past an apartment window in nearby Pripyat, not seeing the glow of the distant explosions. When the shock wave rattles the apartment she looks back, seeing the fire, which her husband heads out to fight. They also see an eerie blue light, like a giant laser, pointing into the sky. It is Cherenkov radiation, but they do not know that. 

The senior man in charge, Anatoly Dyatlov, is calm, knowing that reactors can’t explode but that his “idiot” staff have somehow screwed up. He dismisses one eyewitness who says the reactor core is gone, as being “in shock“. Dismisses another with the same report as “delusional“, sending him to the infirmary after he vomits: “I’ve seen worse“. He asks what the radiation meters are showing and is told that they’re reading 3.6 Rem: it’s merely their maximum, but he does not know that: 

3.6. Not great. Not terrible“.

Two more men investigate the reactor, walking through heavily damaged corridors, encountering injured and uninjured men already vomiting blood just a couple of minutes after the explosion, such are the levels of radiation. They pry open a huge, metal door to walk onto a platform from where they stare into the beast itself, to see a strangely coloured cataract of fire, They turn and run in terror, their faces already red with radiation burns. They are dead, but do not know it.

Firemen who turn up from Pripyat to fight what they think is just a fire on the roof immediately encounter strange things. One wonders why he can “taste metal” in the air. His friend picks up a lump of cold “rock”, asking what it is. A few minutes later he is in agony with his hand badly burned. The “rock” was a piece of the reactor’s graphite core, but he does not know that.

People from Pripyat gather at a railbridge, watching the fire. They ignore the stuff that begins to fall from the sky into their hair and eyes, and those of their children, who play in the sand bank by the bridge, surrounded by the dancing particles. It is radioactive ash, and they do not know that.

Three men volunteer to enter the destoyed building and open a sluice gate so that huge water tanks underneath the reactor can be drained before the melting core hits them and causes an even larger explosion. There is no music: everything a rising score would do emotionally is done via the clicking of Geiger counters and the steady rise of their clicks to a terrifying roar as the men move in. Their flashlight batteries fail under the impact of the radiation and the episode closes in blackness.

We are not spared seeing the effects of this radiation on the human body later, and it is entirely accurate. In one powerful scene the wife of a firefighter tries to comfort him: his entire body is blistered red and black, bleeding in several places, his lips blue. She is pulled roughly aside by a doctor, who says that her husband is a danger to her and their unborn child. He must die alone, in agony because morphine cannot even be put into his veins, since the radiation is literally melting them and other internal organs away. In another scene one of the nuclear experts questions a reactor control room man as he dies. A few movies have shown the human body in such awfulness, but this is not fiction.

The scene where the bodies are then buried in welded metal caskets, with concrete poured over them while their loved ones watch, is cleaner but just as brutal.

As the series proceeds through five episodes we see the Soviet system grind into action, and a different type of horror begins to play out. One aspect of the series I had not expected was its brutal takedown of that system, even as it celebrates the heroism of so many of its subjects. 

At an early morning meeting in the nearby administration building, an old, senior communist, tapping his cane for attention like some Mafia boss, stands up to deliver a cringe-inducing lecture to the group, on the greatness of the USSR and how well they’re doing in this situation – before demanding the local phone lines be cut to prevent “the spread of misinformation“. 

More such men appear throughout: men who only know that the system must be preserved, that things are not so bad, and that it is men who have failed and must be punished. Faced with an unacceptable reality they redefine what is real. Those who disagree are intimidated into silence. It is the USSR as a national version of Dyatlov himself and it is clear that the one ends where the other begins.

Gorbachev comes off fairly well nevertheless, as does Boris Shcherbina, the Deputy Chairman of the Council of Ministers’ and a member of the Central Committee, who is put in charge of what he has been told is merely a “cleanup”, involving no more radiation than an X-Ray. He is partnered with Professor Legasov as his technical advisor, who knows it is much worse. From that point on much of the focus is on these two men.

Veteran actor Stellan Skarsgård (Good Will Hunting, The Avengers) portrays Shcherbina wonderfully as a curt, grim apparatchik who is nevertheless smart and willing to face reality. Jared Harris, (The Crown, The Avengers, Mad Men) plays Legasov as a man who seems worn down by a lifetime of relentless conflict between the Soviet system and scientific truth.

At first neither man is impressed with the other. The apparatchik thinks Legasov just another arrogant scientist. The scientist thinks Shcherbina just another “obedient fool“. On their first helicopter flight to inspect the accident Shcherbina demands Legasov tell him how nuclear reactors work, after which he says: “Good. Now I don’t need you anymore“. He changes his mind after Legasov contradicts his orders and tells the pilot not to fly directly over the reactor as the cloud vomiting into the sky will quickly kill them: radiation readings later show Legasov was right. By the same token, when Legasov says they need to dump 5000 tons of Boron and sand on the reactor core from a fleet of helicopters, thinking it a hopeless demand, Shcherbina gets it done, showing that he can take technical advice and make the creaking system work.

But it becomes clear that only the truth can save them from that system, and it begins to break through to how the men behave. When Shcherbina asks for volunteers to open the sluice gate he gets none at first, and then drops the formality, telling them that while he spits on all the men who caused the accident through design and error, sacrifices must now be made:

This is what has always set our people apart. A thousand years of sacrifice in our veins. Every generation must know it’s own suffering. I’m making my peace with it. Now you make yours. It must be done. If you don’t do it, millions will die. If you tell me that’s not enough, I won’t believe you.

At another point a tunnel must be dug under the reactor so that a nitrogen cooling system can be installed to prevent a meltdown. The Minister of Coal tells a group of miners in Tusla that they have been selected to do the job because of their mining expertise, but news of the accident has begun to spread. They tell him to get stuffed, and that his guards have not enough bullets to take them all out before they kill him. Like Shcherbina he relents and tells them the awful truth, including the fact that even he has not been told everything, as is the way of the system. They volunteer, slapping his shoulders and covering his clean suit with coal dust, telling him: “Now you’re a real Minister of Coal“.

But the aspects of the brutal system still come through. They use old Lunokhod rovers designed to explore the moon in the early 1970’s, to bulldoze debris from the roof into the reactor pit so that a protective, concrete shield can be built. But even they cannot withstand the most radioactive sections. A West German robot is called in, but fails almost immediately, and Shcherbina realises that the Kremlin lied to the West Germans about the amount of radiation that existed. At that point Legasov states that “bio-robots” must be used instead, and we instantly know what he means. We watch small teams of men, covered in lead lining, rush through a hole in a wall to spend just 90 seconds desperately and clumsily trying to throw the debris over the side in what will be their one and only visit.

Truth finally breaks out in the last episode, but only briefly. The episode is about the 1987 trial of the three senior men at Chernobyl, charged under the traditionally frightening Soviet term, “Crimes Against The State“. In a clever turn, it is where we also see what led to the disaster: all the decisions that were made that caused it, ironically starting with the desire to test a new safety procedure, whose success could then have been reported to “the bosses” in Moscow, leading to promotions, more power and a better life.

Legasov testifies in detail how the men, especially Dyatlov, were reckless, ignored safety protocols and pushed the reactor to the brink. But he then gives further evidence that in such a situation, the last failsafe, the SCRAM buttonthat would shove control rods into the reactor to shut it down, would not only fail because the rods had a design flaw, they would act as a detonator, and that the men did not know this because it had been kept a state secret. The reaction is immediate:

Judge:Professor Legasov, if you mean to suggest the Soviet state is somehow responsible for what happened, then I must warn you you are treading on dangerous ground.

Legasov:I’ve already trod on dangerous ground. We’re on dangerous ground right now. Because of our secrets and our lies. They’re practically what define us.

The men are convicted to ten years hard labour, but the Director of the KGB (one of the few fictional characters in the series) delivers a chilling lecture to Legasov that is surely a shout-out to this famous scene:

The Director tells Legasov that while he is too prominent to be shot, what he said in the courtroom will never be seen, read or heard, that while he will keep his title and position he will have no duties, that he will never again see his colleagues or talk about Chernobyl. No friends. No life. And there’s no need to shoot him anyway because:

You will remain so immaterial to the world around you that when you finally do die, it will be exceedingly hard to know that you ever lived at all.

In this we have to remember the opening lines of Legasov at the start of the series:

What is the cost of lies? It’s not that we’ll mistake them for the truth. The real danger is that if we hear enough lies then we no longer recognise the truth at all. What can we do then?

Perhaps. But lies exist in every political and social system. I’m reminded of a related comment which more accurately captures what was going on here. In the last episode of his documentary series, A History of Britain: The Two Winstons, Simon Schama says of Orwell’s story:

The last refuge of freedom against Big Brother is memory. The greatest horror of 1984 is the dictator’s attempt to wipe out history.

Five years later, history would come crashing in on Gorbachev, the Central Committee, the KGB and all the rest of the whole, stinking, rotten Communist system. History wiped it out.

For all its horror and despair, you can watch the series knowing that the heroes of Chernobyl effectively did that, as well as saving lives.

Written by Tom Hunter

June 5, 2019 at 11:24 am

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