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8.6

Chernobyl

The true story of one of the worst man-made catastrophes in history: the catastrophic nuclear accident at Chernobyl. A tale of the brave men and women who sacrificed to save Europe from unimaginable disaster.
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Peter McGinn

at 06:50 am

This is one of the best dramatic series I have watched in years. It can be difficult to maintain tension and drama describing true events that the viewer might be already aware of to some extent, but this program manages it nicely. It is a little predictable in how it tells the story, by which I mean it uses several angles from different characters' points of view: the scientists and administrators representing the Russian government, the employees of the power plant and other disposable workers, and of course the masses of people caught up in the disaster; and finally, for a close-up look, the wife of one of the plant's employees, who follows her husband to a Moscow hospital. All of these perspectives are handled well. A couple of the criticisms I saw sort of bounced off me. One person on another website said it was a good series but he was giving it a low rating because he couldn't believe it was rated higher than Game of Thrones. Uh, okay. Another person felt that the miniseries sugar coated the Communists. I don't know; I lived through Gorbachev and Glasnost, and this portrayal seemed spot on to me. I fully intend to watch the series again, after I finish reading the book it is at least partially based on. Don't miss it.


Stephen Campbell

at 07:27 am

**_Terrifying and sobering – as exceptional a piece of television narrative as you're ever likely to see_** > _The third angel blew his trumpet, and a great star fell from heaven, blazing like a torch, and it fell on a third of the rivers and on the springs of water. The name of the star was Wormwood. A third of the waters became wormwood, and many died from the water, because it was made bitter._ - Revelation 8:10-11 > Вічная Пам'ять - Polychronion chanted at the end of Eastern Orthodox funerals > _This bitch was in the middle of the room with her puppies. She went for me – I p__ut a bullet in her. The puppies were licking my arms, being all sweet and playful. We had to shoot at point-blank. Saints preserve us! There was this one dog, a little black poodle. I still feel sorry for it. We heaped the tipper full of them. Taking them to the burial site. To tell the truth, it was just a plain old deep pit, though you were meant to dig it taking care not to reach the ground water and line the bottom with plastic. You're meant to find some spot fairly high up, but you know how it is. The rules were broken all the time: we had no plastic, and we didn't spend long looking for the right spot. If you wound them rather than killing them, they'll squeal and cry. They were tipping them out of the truck into the pit, and this little poodle began scrabbling about. It climbed out. Nobody had any cartridges left. Had nothing to finish it off with, not a single cartridge. They shoved it back into the pit and covered them all up with earth. Still feel sorry for it._ - as related to Svetlana Alexievich; _Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster_ (1997) > _Altogether, 50 million curies of radiation were released by the Chernobyl explosion, the equivalent of 500 Hiroshima bombs. All that was required for such catastrophic fallout was the escape of less than 5 percent of the reactor's nuclear fuel. Originally it had contained more than 250 pounds of enriched uranium – enough to pollute and devastate most of Europe. And if the other three reactors of the Chernobyl power plant had been damaged by the explosion of the first, then hardly any living and breathing organisms would have remained on the planet._ - Serhii Plokhy; _Chernobyl: The History of a Nuclear Catastrophe_ (2018) > _Soviet scientists admitted that 17.5 million people, including 2.5 million children under seven, had lived in the most seriously contaminated areas of Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia at the time of the disaster. Of these, 696,000 had been examined by Soviet medical authorities by the end of 1986. Yet the official tally of deaths ascribed to the disaster to date has remained the same: 31._ - Adam Higginbotham; _Midnight in Chernobyl: The Untold Story of the World's Greatest Nuclear Disaster_ (2019) Released in May 2019, with over a year remaining of the Trump administration, a show about a nuclear accident in the Soviet Union some 33 years ago probably doesn't jump out as being especially relevant to the here and now. Except, of course, it's not really about a nuclear accident. It's about governmental denial and subterfuge, it's about the dangers of rejecting science in favour of ideology. It's about the importance of a free press. It's about lies. It's about people who attempt to speak truth to power. And it's about the people who suffer when an entire legislative system is rotten to the core. And with that in mind, it suddenly becomes a lot more relevant to 2019 United States. Created, written, and executive produced by Craig Mazin (whose previous work inexplicably includes _Scary Movie 3_, _Scary Movie 4_, _Superhero Movie_, _The Hangover Part II_, and _The Hangover Part III_), _Chernobyl_ is directed by TV and music video veteran Johan Renck as part-horror movie, part-cautionary tale, and part-political treatise. Mazin began researching the Chernobyl explosion in 2013, initially as a hobby. Thinking he knew what had happened reasonably well, he was surprised to find how much he didn't know, and how much the majority of people didn't know, and it was this knowledge-gap that led to the show. Equal parts political deconstruction and painstaking recreation of what it must have been like to live through the worst nuclear disaster in history, the show presents a terrifying, nightmare vision of how bad things can get when hard scientific facts are made subservient to political agendas, and governments strive to undermine not only scientific expertise but the very nature of truth itself (the Soviet Union was a big fan of "alternative facts" long before the GOP). _Chernobyl_ begins and ends by asking the viewer to ponder the cost of cumulative nation-wide lies. However, it's just as interested in celebrating the heroes as it is assigning blame, and in that sense, it has an extraordinary sense of humanism. The acting is immense, the writing is incisive and terrifying, the aesthetic is exceptional, and the show was a worthy winner of no less than 10 Emmys from its 18 nominations, including "Outstanding Limited Series", "Outstanding Directing for a Limited Series, Movie, or Dramatic Special", "Outstanding Writing for a Limited Series, Movie, or Dramatic Special", "Outstanding Cinematography for a Limited Series or Movie" (for "Please Remain Calm"), "Outstanding Musical Composition for a Limited Series, Movie, or Dramatic Special" (for "Please Remain Calm"), and "Outstanding Single-Camera Picture Editing for a Limited Series or Movie" (Simon Smith for "Please Remain Calm"). The show also won seven of its 11 nominations at the British Academy Television Craft Awards (including Best Director, Best Editing, Best Costume Design, Best Original Music, and Best Production Design), and two of its four Golden Globe nominations – Best Limited Series or Television Film and Best Supporting Actor in a Series, Limited Series or Television Film (Stellan Skarsgård). All in all, Chernobyl is that rarest of beasts – a show which lives up to the hype. April 26, 1986, 1:23am; near the city of Pripyat in the north of the Ukrainian SSR. Reactor No. 4 at the Vladimir Ilyich Lenin Nuclear Power Plant (aka Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant) explodes, sending out masses of radioactive material. Fire crews are called, but neither they nor the local people have any idea of the severity of the situation. As the Central Committee tries to keep a lid on things, a commission is hastily assembled to investigate the disaster. The commission's head is Boris Shcherbina (a career-best performance from Stellan Skarsgård), Deputy Chairman of the Council of Ministers, and a devout party-man who believes it when he's told that the radiation released from the reactor is no stronger than that used in a chest x-ray. The commission's scientific expert is Valery Legasov (a mesmerising Jared Harris), deputy director of the Kurchatov Institute, who immediately realises that the accident is much more serious than the government are saying, and that the people in immediate danger amount not to tens of thousands, but tens of millions. The show opens with the explosion and then follows Legasov and Shcherbina as they investigate why it happened and unexpectedly form a strong friendship. Along the way, we're introduced to a sizable number of characters, some well-known, many not at all – Ulana Khomyuk (Emily Watson), a nuclear physicist from Minsk (composite character); Lyudmilla Ignatenko (a heartbreaking Jessie Buckley), the wife of one of the first-responders; Vasily Ignatenko (Adam Nagaitis), Lyudmilla's husband; Anatoly Dyatlov (a quite stunning Paul Ritter), Deputy Chief Engineer at Chernobyl and the man in charge of the control room at the time of the explosion; Mikhail Gorbachev (a chameleonic performance from David Dencik), General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union; Viktor Bryukhanov (Con O'Neill), director of Chernobyl; Nikolai Fomin (Adrian Rawlins), chief engineer at Chernobyl; Aleksandr Akimov (Sam Troughton doing a lot with a small role), night shift supervisor; Leonid Toptunov (Robert Emms), senior control engineer; General Vladimir Pikalov (Mark Lewis Jones), commander of the Chemical Troops of the USSR; Viktor Chebrikov (Alan Williams), Chairman of the KGB; Andrei Glukhov (Alex Ferns), mining crew chief; Major General Nikolai Tarakanov (Ralph Ineson), supervisor of the clean-up operation; Pavel Gremov (Barry Keoghan), civilian draftee into the clean-up operation (fictional character); Bacho (Fares Fares), Soviet-Afghan War veteran who trains Pavel (fictional character); Zharkov (Donald Sumpter), member of the Pripyat Executive Committee (fictional character); Svetlana Zinchenko (Nadia Clifford), doctor treating those with radiation sickness (composite character); and Andrei Stepashin (Michael McElhatton), Soviet prosecutor (composite character). Thematically, _Chernobyl_ is anything but subtle. The opening line is "_What is the cost of lies?_", and this issue is front and centre for the entire five episodes. The show presents the Soviet Union as a place where lying and statecraft were one and the same, and in so doing, it illustrates what can happen when institutions of government put political ideology above objective facts, when egotistical politicians disregard everything that experts are telling them in favour of their own ill-informed theories (sound familiar?). It is, in essence, a show about the dangers of state-sanctioned obfuscation. The first episode in particular gives us some fine illustrations of a system obsessed with committees, bureaucracy, and secrecy, all built upon an unnecessarily complicated and rigid hierarchy. For example, shortly after the explosion, Bryukhanov explains to the Pripyat Executive Committee, > _As you can see, we have experienced an accident. A large control tank malfunctioned, damaging reactor building four and starting a fire. I have spoken directly to Deputy Secretary Maryin. Maryin spoke to Deputy Chief Frolyshev, Frolyshev to Central Committee member Dolghikh, and Dolghikh to General Secretary Gorbachev. Because the Central Committee has the greatest respect for the work of the Pripyat Executive Committee, they have asked me to brief you on matters as they stand. First, the accident is well under control._ This sequence goes from the manager of Chernobyl (Bryukhanov) to the Deputy Secretary of the Power Industry (Maryin) to the Deputy Chief of the Machine Building Department of the Central Committee (Frolyshev) to a Politburo member (Dolgikh) to the General Secretary (Gorbachev). And if you think this is an exaggeration, all of these people are real, and this is precisely the sequence of how the information got from Bryukhanov to Gorbachev. As it's presented in the show, there's nothing remotely subtle about it, as we're invited to shake our heads at the ridiculousness of it all. An even more telling example of governmental secrecy occurs in the same scene, as Zharkov addresses the Committee, > _From the Central Committee all the way down to each of us in this room – we represent the perfect expression of the collective will of the Soviet proletariat. Sometimes, we forget. Sometimes, we fall prey to fear. But our faith in Soviet socialism will always be rewarded. Always. The State tells us the situation is not dangerous. Have faith. The State tells us they do not want a panic. Listen well. True, when the people see police, they will be scared. But it is my experience that when the people ask questions that are not in their own best interest, they should simply be told to keep their minds on their labour – and to leave matters of the State to the State. We seal off the city. No one leaves. We cut the phone lines. Contain the spread of misinformation. That is how you keep the people from undermining the fruits of their own labour. That is how your names become inscribed in the hallways of the Kremlin. Yes, comrades. We will all be rewarded for what we do here tonight. This is our moment to shine._ This speech is met with applause. There's a lot to unpack here, but the line "keep the people from undermining the fruits of their own labour" is especially telling. Essentially, "_keep the people uninformed so they don't ask us to explain ourselves._" And, to a certain extent, much of the rest of the show depicts how that is exactly what the government has accomplished. If there's an overriding mindset amongst the Soviet people, it's a sense of civic duty, borne of a genuine belief in socialism and total trust in the Central Committee. Not all characters share this trust, but enough of them do to make it an undeniable trope. And for the most part, the show presents this sense of duty to the State as deeply honourable, worthy of a great deal of respect. How the State elicits, manipulates and exploits these feelings is being criticised, not the feelings themselves – a vital distinction. This is seen most clearly when one contrasts the noble self-sacrifices made by multiple characters, often knowingly giving their lives for the State and for one another, with the callous way the politburo look on such sacrifices – they expect people to give their lives because lives have to be given. As Shcherbina says at one point, "_you will do it because it must be done_". To the Politburo, the proletariat is not a collective of individuals, it is a single body, and it can afford to lose a person here and there without any significant damage. Since the series was released, much has been written about the fidelity (or lack thereof) of the representation of the Soviet Union in 1986 – whether such and such a politician doing this is realistic, or such and such a politician saying that is over the top. Without explicit knowledge of the _milieu_, I can't really comment on this aspect of the show, but what I can do is cite another source that seems to suggest the show's depiction of the extraordinary unpreparedness and elaborate web of lies built by the government is most definitely not an exaggeration. In _Children of Chernobyl_, a Canadian documentary filmed in Ukraine just five years after the accident, we're told that in the weeks and months following April 26, hospitals were trying to treat patients despite having no wheels on their IV stands and barely any cancer medication whatsoever. A pack of needles cost 10 rubles (5 times the average daily wage), so cash-strapped hospitals had to reuse syringes across multiple patients. And as part of the massive cover-up attempt, individuals were barred from owning dosimeters, meaning they were unable to test levels of radioactivity for themselves. Indeed, huge numbers of people only became aware of the severity of the problem by listening to foreign news reports on short wave radios (which were illegal in the Soviet Union). After the accident, Dr. Alla Shapiro was asked to prepare a lecture on radiation for a hospital in Kiev, but when she went to the National Medical Library, she discovered that literally every book with the word radiation in it had been taken off the shelves and classified. On May 1, just four days after the explosion, and with rumours spreading about the nature of the disaster, the government urged people to attend the International Workers' Day parades, even in areas they knew to be heavily contaminated (and once word got out to other countries, the vast majority of the official footage of the parades in and around Pripyat were removed from the National Archives). So the show may have some factual inaccuracies here and there, and quite a bit may be exaggerated, but there very much is at least an underlying truth to everything we see. Aesthetically, _Chernobyl_ is nothing short of masterful, with virtually every creative department knocking it out of the park. The show opens with the explosion, throwing the audience into the chaos and confusion that happened. We're given no info whatsoever on what caused the accident – teasing that out will form the substance of much of the rest of the episodes. However, rather than placing us in the control room at the moment of the explosion, it is instead presented in such a way that immediately establishes that this isn't going to be all spectacle for its own sake. We initially see the explosion in the distance, through the closed window of a character who doesn't even notice it happening until the shockwave hits a couple of seconds later. It's a wholly unexpected way to begin, presenting a massive real-life disaster not from the perspective of spectacle (_Deepwater Horizon_, I'm looking at you), but from a subjective human perspective. This immediately sets up the show's interest in people. The helicopter crash seen in the trailer is shot the same way – we don't cut between objective shots from outside and subjective shots from inside, which would muddle the perspective. Instead, the whole thing is shot from Legasov and Shcherbina's perspective, focusing on their human reactions rather than the fiery spectacle. As for the cinematography generally, Jakob Ihre (_Quitters_; _Louder Than Bombs_; _Thelma_) shoots everything unfussily, with no real visual gymnastics. However, there are still moments of stark beauty and great artistry. The second episode ends with a dialogueless scene that Michael Mann would be proud of – a terrifying claustrophobic sequence shot almost entirely in pitch darkness with the only light coming from the torches carried by the men on screen. This episode also features perhaps the single most extraordinary shot in the series – a high elevation shot of Pripyat looking down at the residents being evacuated onto a fleet of buses. In the background, the power plant can be seen still burning, whilst the people and the plant are bifurcated by the flats in which they used to live. This is as good an example of thematic photography as you're likely to find. And then there's the acting. Harris plays Legasov as world-weary and somewhat bitter, but a man whose disillusionment with the Party was nothing compared to what he feels as he sees them trying to cover-up and play down the most serious nuclear disaster in human history. Skarsgård's Shcherbina has an exceptionally well-constructed arc, moving from emotionless apparatchik to perhaps the most relatable character in the show. Skarsgård does some of his best work here when he has no dialogue, conveying everything with his eyes, movements, and facial expressions. And then there's Paul Ritter, who turns Dyatlov into one of the most contemptible characters ever put on screen. I would never have an imagined that such an amiable actor could have made me loathe him so much, but Ritter embraces Dyatlov's narcissism, insecurity, and bullying tendencies and takes them to another level entirely (RIP Mr Ritter). As for problems, well, if there is one, it is probably that the characters are a little too black and white – the 'good' characters are practically saintly, and the 'bad' characters are almost pure evil. Legasov, for example, is depicted as a truth teller who disapproves of the Soviet system and cares only for the facts. In reality, he was a party man, and he initially agreed with the cover up. Indeed, his dramatic testimony at the trial as depicted in the final episode is entirely fictitious – he was not present at that trail, which lasted weeks and was considered remarkably dull, even for a Soviet show trial. The same issue is apparent with Khomyuk, a composite character representing the many scientists who aided Legasov. Watson is good in the role, but as written, she's fairly obviously a screenwriter's creation, embodying multiple hackneyed Hollywood clichés. She's a fearless truth-teller and truth-seeker, a hugely intelligent woman who is far superior to the idiot men around her (how she discovers the accident is especially preposterous). She purposely gets herself arrested and not an hour later, she's in a meeting with Legasov, Shcherbina and the entire Central Committee. Such a thing would simply not be possible in the USSR. The strange thing is, she's unnecessary. If Mazin wanted a prominent female character, why not use Maria Protsenko, the architect who designed Pripyat and supervised its evacuation? On the other hand, Bryukhanov and Fomin are presented as utterly detestable, as ignorant as they are callous, completely uninterested in the lives of their employees, concerned only with their own reputations. In essence, many of the characters are either stupid or evil, or both, while the scientists are righteous prophets. And there's not a lot of ground in between. Chernobyl is a disaster which, as of 2020, is still affecting crops and animals – in Sweden (the first country to learn of the explosion), mushrooms, reindeer, and wild boar are still screened for Cesium-137 contamination and occasionally declared unfit for sale. The disaster also had a profound effect on the geo-political sphere, and is generally seen as the beginning of the end for the USSR, whilst also serving as something of a wake-up call to the world's nuclear powers. At the time of the disaster, the Soviets were manufacturing a missile called R-36M (NATO reporting name SS-18 Satan), which was roughly 100 times as strong as Chernobyl. By 1986, they had 2,700 in their arsenal. Chernobyl really brought into focus just what kind of devastating power we are dealing with here. At its core, however, the show is more interested in what happens when governments stop listening to science, when every smart person in the room is telling a leader one thing, and he or she decides to ignore it based on nothing other than ideology or ego (and yes, Trump's attitude to the ever-worsening global climate crisis is very much the target). An exceptional piece of television in pretty much every way, _Chernobyl_ is as terrifying as it is compelling, as heartbreaking as it is eye-opening. And all of this is not even to mention the dogs. I'm just not ready to talk about the dogs.