5 reasons why “Chernobyl” is damn good storytelling, and it will (hopefully) have an impact

The HBO miniseries just aired its last episode and it sky-rocketed directly to the top of IMDb’s top 205 TV of all times.  Some of the very early reviews (Guardian and New York Times here) found it “chaotic” and “overly dramatized”, but as the show unfolded, critics and viewers reached an almost unanimous, overwhelmingly positive consensus (95% on Rotten Tomatoes).

I remember those days quite well. In 1986, I was 9 years old and when the news started to spread in Italy, there was a real wave of panic. We were invited not to stay outside, to drink only bottled water, not to buy fresh milk or vegetables. We knew very little about the nuclear threat in general, but I remember how “the toxic cloud”, as it was dubbed, became a very real concern for people. We were afraid to look up to the sky.

Here two historical reports: the American ABC news with the official statement by Gorbachev, and for those interested, also the Italian news report we got from Rai 1 (“the situation is out of control, and the way it’s been managed in irresponsible“).

We knew so little, back then. The feeling is that we were kids playing with fire. The consequences could have been much, much worse. Then, the feeling somehow faded away but it stayed buried in our collective memory, as a bad, bad nightmare that it’s better forgotten.

And then, 30 years later, this show happened. This may help to explain why “Chernobyl” has been received in such a powerful way. It connected with the collective memory of a few generations who tried to forget the trauma, but couldn’t really.

Is the show really that good? What do I think? (Does it really matter?)

I will answer these questions below with a classic “5 things” list, but a warning first. We are talking about a well known disaster so you probably already know how it ends, but I will drop a number of plot related spoilers. Keep reading if you don’t mind them.   

Yes, I think it’s really good. It has been a powerful experience, I watched each episode alone, late at night, in the dark. It has been sobering, exhilarating, terrifying.

Here are my top 5 reflections.

1) the political message couldn’t be more clear and urgent. 

The ashes of King’s Landing are still warm (looking at you, Dany), and we remember how crazy the debate went on whether or not Game of Thrones ended up disappointing the expectations of its fans (or it didn’t). Especially those who were hoping for a more political (or environmental, which is the same) spin. Whatever your opinion on that, if (unlike Samuel Goldwyn) you think entertainment should carry a message, “Chernobyl” is your show. 

Its theme couldn’t be stated more clearly, from the very beginning. We are in a man’s living room and he speaks out of sight.

As we are going to find out soon, we hear the voice of Valery Legasov (Jared Harris). In a meta-narrative exposition he is telling us what the show is going to be about.  Truth, lies, and scapegoats.

Think what you will, but it’s established quite soon that this is not just “fiction”. The theme couldn’t be more relevant to our days dominated by post-truth, where entire governments and individuals are doing everything they can to deny scientific facts, propaganda their own versions of “truth”, look for scapegoats for easy political gain and ignore even the most catastrophic warnings by the scientific community about the future of humankind.

And the fact that contemporary pro-Kremlin media are openly sabotaging the show, defining it “a caricature meant to damage the reputation of Russia as a nuclear power” (“The only things missing are the bears and accordions!”), should also invite reflections.

At the same time, the show’s narrative is not black and white (or “blue and red”). This is not Rocky IV, with its cold war narrative and a clear distinction of good guys vs bad guys.

On the contrary. The show takes obviously place at the times of the Soviet Union and exposes the corruption and shortsightedness of its bureaucrats, the ineffectiveness of its government, and the inhuman methods it used.

However, “Chernobyl” is not all about the Soviet Union. It is about corruption, greed, ignorance and the risks of handling powers – like nuclear reactors, or climate – we barely understand. These are universal topics and their relevance is as urgent today as it was in 1986. As Gorbachev put it, the Soviet Union collapsed (probably, also) under the consequences of the Chernobyl disaster. And it certainly accelerated the process of glasnost (openness) ; but how will our present-day empires face the future challenges, remains to be seen. 

2) it’s a miniseries. And while the main theme remains clear, the different episodes explore its various aspects and subgenres. 

Episode 1 (1:23:45, the exact time of the disaster and also – but only in the series – the time of Legasov’s suicide) sets the scene, introducing the characters and seeding many plot elements, exploring a sub-theme can be described as “Cosmic Horror”, where humans mess things up real bad and unleash horrors they can’t understand.

Episode 2 (“Please remain calm”) gets into techno-political thriller territory. It digs into the ways humans deal with the consequences, showing the good, the bad and the ugly of their actions. Incompetence and corruption get in the way.

The guy must love Fox News.

 

Technical solutions are experimented but for now, it’s still a big mess. This is when the crisis reaches its deepest point.

The helicopter crash scene is authentic (although its actual timing was different).

Compare it with the real footage, here:

Episode 3 (“Open Wide, O Earth”) and Episode 4 (“The Happiness of All Mankind”) explore human and environmental horror, showing the dramatic consequences of the disaster on individuals and their lives, on the societal level, as well as on the environment.

Here are some of the most harrowing sequences, like the elimination of all the wild and domestic animals in the region, carried out by the military,

This will be a meaningful transformation arc for the young Pavel.

and the “human robots” who – after real robots fail – receive the impossible mission to clear the debris on the roof, “the most dangerous place on Earth”, where radiations can kill a person in 90 seconds.

And finally, episode 5 (“Vichnaya Pamyat” – memory eternal) belongs definitely to the procedural-crime genre, where facts are exposed, and a gripping, minute-by-minute reconstruction of the events is provided.

If 5 minutes, Legasov explains the working of the reactor in what is possibly the best exposition ever.

This means that throughout the series there are frequent tone changes, and the pace is always varied. “Chernobyl” is haunting, but never gets boring.  

3) it’s realistic, and at the same time it’s a very entertaining show. 

If by “entertaining” we mean thrilling, terrifying, nerve-racking. 

“Chernobyl” represents events faithfully, in some cases with incredible attention to details. Just have a look at the real footage video of the workers cleaning the roof in 1986 (compare it with the picture from the show, above):

But, even if at times it looks and feels like a documentary, it’s not one.

It takes many creative liberties in the name of entertainment and to make use of several successful tv tropes and storytelling mechanisms. Tv Tropes does a very good job in describing them all.

This can be annoying to some viewers, who can find some of the changes too intrusive. Examples: there was no black smoke coming from the reactor (one of the problems of radioactive particles is that they are invisible, carry no smell, leave no trace); the sky didn’t have that beautiful and ghastly blue glow the night of the accident; the radiation levels cannot – or can they? – be compared to Hiroshima. Even the apocalyptic worst-case scenario predicted by Cassandra / Ulana (Emily Watson) is considered overly exaggerated by some commenters.

But many details, however insane, are real. The firefighters’ gear is still in Prypjat, in the hospital’s basement, and the place is one of the most radioactive in the entire area (you can watch the video here, it’s crazy); animals in the area were really exterminated (however, professional hunters were employed, instead of soldiers).

Since only partial accounts exist of the event – and they are in many case conflicting – the producers had to make a lot of decisions.

For one, how does the exposed core of a nuclear plant look like? It’s the industrial equivalent of taking a naked eye peek into a black hole. Trivia: three men actually looked into it, not the two portrayed in the show.

Whenever in doubt, as Craig Mazin (writer) declared: “I always went for the less crazy one, I always defaulted to the less dramatic because the things that we know for sure happened are so inherently dramatic”. And he decided to take some liberties, because a show has to be first of all entertaining, has to follow some rules. And make no mistake, “Chernobyl” is one emotional hell of a ride.  

4) the production value is high, very high, mushroom cloud high.  

Every aspect of the show is impeccable. I already talked about the attention to detail, when re-creating some of the events (big and small) around the disaster and its aftermath.

The soundtrack is in the hands of Hildur Guðnadóttir (Arrival, Sicario, The Revenant), and she delivers a low-key, haunting musical commentary to the events, including Geiger counter clicks, guaranteed to carve a special place in your mind (and nightmares).

The acting is fantastic, with brilliant performances in all major and minor roles. Jared Harris and Stellan Skarsgård stand out as Valery Legasov and Boris Shcherbina, while Emily Watson gives heart and voice to Ulana Khomyuk (a fictional charachter meant to represent the entire Russian community of scientists concerned for truth).

And let’s take a moment to discuss the casting (and the costume and make-up departments). The actors chosen for the main roles are nothing but incredible when compared to their real counterparts. Have a look (full source):

Jared Harris as Valery Legasov.
Stellan Skarsgård as Boris Shcherbina.
David Dencik as Mikhail Gorbachev.
Jessie Buckley as Lyudmila Ignatenko.
The trial in the show’s version (top) and in the real footage (bottom).

Conclusion, the whole show is a delight to watch, hear, experience.

(Real) aerial view of the reactor 4, after the disaster.

5) it will have consequences (hopefully). 

Have a look at the graph below. It shows the google trends for the word “chernobyl”, measured worldwide. How many times people were searching for the word, in the last 5 years. The graph had a +10% spike on 26th April, 2016, which marked the 30th anniversary of the disaster. Then nothing significant until this year, when the HBO show aired. Then, just like a RBMK reactor, it went off the charts.

 

More interest for this disaster can only be good. We live in times when the word “environment” must carry an immediate call to action, like the one Legasov received.

There is a weird, creepy fascination in watching a disaster unfold in front of our eyes, and “Chernobyl” does a terrific job at that. It spares no tricks, however horrific: we get to see the invisible poison raining on children, the blood, we hear the hospital screams as tissues liquefy, we witness as pets are killed and buried under a concrete pour. It’s strong material, not for the faint of heart. But it has a positive outcome.

It’s the “Titanic” effect. We know perfectly well what’s going to happen, but we still enjoy the process. Normally, it’s a powerful catharsis. 

But there are a few differences. “Titanic” carried a classic cautionary tale: “hubris will be punished”. Fine, nothing wrong with that.

However, “Chernobyl” dives deeper. It deals with supernatural horror, since the workings of nuclear energy are “magic” for the vast majority of us.

It’s considered “clean energy” (ah-ah, nice joke. Try to say it again, after watching this series), but it deals with forces that are still way above our understanding, let alone control. And those, in the final words of Legasov, “don’t care for our governments, our ideologies, our religions”. This series shows – in a perfectly crafted way, therefore impossible to ignore, delivering a deep emotional impact and a long lasting effect – what are the consequences of ignorance, laziness, greed and corruption, combined. All human faults.

But at the same time, it also celebrates human virtues: courage, honesty, determination to fight for what is right, selfless sacrifice. Countless heroes appear in the show, and we don’t even get to know their names. They face death or terrible suffering but they simply do what needs to be done, whether it’s putting out a fire, digging a tunnel or tending horrible wounds.

And among all the characters, Valery Legasov emerges as the “hero” of the story. He is “one of them” (meaning, a member of the Soviet administration, therefore not so innocent after all), so he fits with the archetype of the flawed hero (like Batman, Hamlet or Achilles). But a hero nonetheless. (You can read his real-life memoirs, they are available online from 1988’s Pravda).

He delivers his message in the final episode and his words are loud and clear:

And, as a classic tragic hero, he pays this debt to “truth” with the highest price, his life. He also records his words, to make sure many others will hear them. The first and the last episodes of “Chernobyl” contain all the essential elements of storytelling: answer the call, pay the price, tell your story, make sure someone will hear it.  

“Chernobyl” is a powerful, perfect story, one that will leave a long lasting mark in all those who experience it. I know it did, for me, and I am grateful for it.

And now, as the viewers, it’s our turn to honor its legacy. What we do next is up to us. In our everyday choices, in the leaders we trust with the power to decide over our communities, in the importance we give to “truth” in the defining moments of our lives.

 

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