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HBO’s Brilliant Chernobyl Overturned Convention and Bent the Truth

More than 6 million people watched the series finale of Chernobyl on HBO on Monday night: a surprising figure for a historical fiction miniseries that could have easily functioned as side programming, catered toward a niche of the network’s audience. But over five hour-plus episodes, the show built up a following to rival some of HBO’s Sunday night scripted shows. Why? Maybe people can’t resist a good disaster narrative, and one that’s centered around a headstrong government flailing to avoid accusations of wrongdoing feels particularly timely. (I won’t even mention the country it’s set in.)

But Chernobyl, for all its flowery one-liners about the value of truth in a world that revolves around lies, does not force contemporary overtones on the viewer. It keeps its eyes on the road, detailing the central 1986 Ukrainian nuclear catastrophe and its aftermath slowly and deliberately, making small plot shifts matter. In its uncompromising attention to detail and modest narrative aims, it is an ideal use of the miniseries format. The show’s most novel element is the way it subtly distances itself from its factual source material, while still conveying the inherent drama of the accepted “true” version of the story. It pushes simultaneously toward universality and specificity, distinguishing itself from the rank and file of contemporary historical re-enactment shows and films.

There is a tension between the fictitious and the forensic in Chernobyl, which is the brainchild of an unlikely pair: the American screenwriter Craig Mazin (who is responsible for both Hangover sequels, somehow) and Johan Renck, a Swedish director best known for his music videos and latent music career. This week in the New York Times, a scientist who toured the Chernobyl facility explored the ways in which the deeply researched series (Mazin co-hosts an HBO podcast about the subject matter) deviates from the established historical facts. The Times piece took note of the nature of the nature of the reactor cleanup work as portrayed in the show, and its depiction of a Soviet courtroom. But Chernobyl’s most significant fabrication is one of its three lead characters. The series’ main characters, physicist Valery Legasov (Jarred Harris) and Soviet politician Boris Shcherbina (Stellan Skarsgård), are assisted in their investigation by a third scientist, Ulana Khomyuk (Emily Watson), whom the filmmakers say is composite of dozens of physicists who attempted to unravel what had occurred at the power plant.

HBO Chernobyl
CREDIT: Liam Daniel/HBO

In Chernobyl, these forms of downsizing and essentializing serve not only to make the heavily scientific narrative more comprehensible to a wide viewership, but also to fine-tune the story dramatically—to make the arcs of the characters clearer. Chernobyl wisely avoids attempting to build wholesale backstories and personal lives for its three leads, but it diligently tracks the transformations in consciousness and motivation they undergo over the course of their work. Meager supporting plots about side characters, like the pregnant wife of a power plant operator who helped to instigate the metdown, provide the human interest. Spartan and low on dialogue, they sometimes feel like dramatizations of bleak Russian short fiction. Stories like these are meant to emphasize the human toll of the accident, but sometimes, aerial shots of evacuated tenement buildings, surrounded by roving animals (animals are important on this show), do the job just as well.

Chernobyl’s most immediately unusual aspect is its use of European (English and Scandinavian, largely) actors speaking in unaffected voices while portraying Russian and Ukrainian characters. From the working-class people of Pripyat on up to Mikhail Gorbachev, no one seems like a plausible citizen of the Soviet Union. In the scenes of board meetings of ineffectual yes-men of the state, the Russian leadership consists of actors behaving like mild-mannered European gentlemen. They make empty, self-aggrandizing pronouncements while hundreds and thousands of people suffer from direct exposure to untold levels of radiation. The accents are one surface-level tool that Chernobyl uses to prevent the viewer from convincing themselves that the show is some kind of documentary account. Hearing a man introduce himself as Vasily in Cockney English, to name just one example, forces our focus away from the mechanics of historical accuracy.

The production wrings the truth out of its source material by putting it at a slight remove, finding the inherent universality in the particulars of the catastrophe and the spread of misinformation it instigated. Renck and Mazin set the drama in claustrophobic quarters, against drab and barren backdrops, across landscapes that look like the end of the world. In this wasteland, there is no place for kitschy signifiers of place and time; it’s often easy to forget that we are in the 1980s, or to feel that it doesn’t matter that we are. Specific references to the peculiarities of the time are on the fringes, like indicators in a modernized Shakespeare restaging—suggestive but aesthetically non-invasive.

HBO chernobyl
CREDIT: Liam Daniel/HBO

The choice to rely relatively minimally on the bells and whistles of production design speaks to the project’s humility more generally. Despite the massive set piece of the reactor, Chernobyl’s most crucial scenes have the feeling of a stagey, low-budget production. The treatment allows room for scenes to breathe, and makes the small moments of ineptitude or quixotic courage that spur the action feel more plausible and crucial. We watch the disastrous decisions get made in context, in short surges of insecurity and desperation. These moments of human weakness feel perfectly naturalistic, and therefore even more unsettling.

Chernobyl also breaks from biopic-like convention in its fundamental ambiguity. Many workers make sacrifices, but their contributions are like bandaids on a severed limb. In one scene, a group of men are ordered to wade through toxic waste to minimize the damage, and are congratulated earnestly for their invaluable service to the Soviet Union. But what, in the long term, have their missions achieved? Chernobyl is more concerned with the terror of these anonymous gas-masked individuals deepen as they trip and stumble through the destroyed reactor, a man-made hell on earth.

The show makes its unsettled relationship with fact clearest in the courtroom drama of its season finale. As the three heroes give their accounts of what happened at Chernobyl, we see a dramatization of the reactor’s control room just before the explosion. The apparent flashback portrays their words directly: a manifestation of a reconstructed narrative, distilled for the benefit of the courtroom. But despite all the evidence and testimony supporting this chain of events, it is still a story that the characters are telling themselves. The scene functions as a sort of meta-device: a simplified picture communicating the egomania and ignorance that engineered the tragedy, painting exaggerated villains (plant engineer Anatoly Dyatlov, played by Paul Ritter) and golden hearts (his reluctant underlings). It conveys a feeling of bleak inevitability: we have a pretty good idea of what happened at Chernobyl, but don’t know exactly, and we never will. (An epilogue describing the aftermath of the explosion, identifying enduring mysteries about Chernobyl and disparities in different accounts, drives this point home.)

HBO Chernobyl
CREDIT: Liam Daniel/HBO

This is the ultimate irony of Chernobyl: a story about the elision of truth and its long-term effects is itself constructed of lies, or at least exaggerations and simplifications of the complex and knotty facts. The show rounds up the heroism of its main characters, just as the Soviet state rounded down the implications of the Chernobyl “accident.” This tension does not hurt or discount Mazin and Renck’s project. Rather, it makes Chernobyl more than just an incidental political commentary, or formal experiment; it’s a unique endeavor which colors outside the lines of stock re-enactment entertainment, digging around for revelations about human nature amid the ashes of this multivalent historical disaster.

In its exploitation of big- and small-screen tropes (the biopic, the disaster film, the prestige-TV character drama), Chernobyl forces us to closely consider our increasingly frequent consumption of entertainment that’s based in real history. Where do we focus our attention while we watch these shows? How do we judge their quality? What purpose, really, does it serve to remember the past in this way? Chernobyl does not play out like a dramatized Wikipedia article because it does not seek to make us feel like we’ve learned something. It does not seek to illuminate or make sense of bygone events. Instead, it complicates the past and pries it open, drawing attention to the unstable nature of history rather than reifying a tidy story.

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Tags: Chernobyl, HBO