In the fourth episode of HBO’s mini-series Chernobyl, two veterans of the Soviet war in Afghanistan take pity on a new recruit who has never seen battle. Facing the horrible task of slaughtering stray animals to limit the spread of radiation, the battle-weary soldiers dispense with typical hazing rituals and recount stories of how their first killing changed them as men. Despite their sang froid in the face of a horrid and onerous task, they scold the young man when he shoots a dog but does not kill him. “Do not let them suffer,” says one soldier, issuing a reprimand that echoes an experience from another place, another battlefield.
This expression of decency only underscores the enormity of the moment.
Honor and pride in the face of horror are recurring themes in the five-part drama. Written by Craig Mazin and directed by Johan Renck, Chernobyl assumes a level of sophistication in its audience; actors do not speak English with Russian accents, and there are no unnecessary romances added to spice up the plot. If anything, most of the dialogue is blunt and fatalistic, evoking the shock of experiencing the worst nuclear tragedy of the latter part of the twentieth century. On the strength of strong performances by Jared Harris, Emily Watson, and Stellan Skarsgård, the series neither condemns the Soviet Union nor praises it. Every character, from top scientists to firefighters and miners, approach their profession seriously and with dignity, united in the goal of managing the inconceivable – a catastrophe that threatens the lives of all around them, including their own.
1986 was a pivotal year for the Soviet Union. The Afghan war continued to deplete military and financial resources, forcing the General Mikhail Gorbachev, then the new Communist Party General Secretary, to consider an aggressive troop withdrawal. Presiding over his first Communist Party Congress that February, Gorbachev introduced his concept of Glasnost, stripping away years of Stalinist secrecy.
Chernobyl handles this carefully; David Dencik’s contemplative Gorbachev immediately brings to mind on-screen portrayals of John F Kennedy during the Cuban Missile Crisis. As a new and inexperienced leader saddled with a disaster, he must grapple with how to reconcile ideology with pragmatism. Moved by the potential for loss of life, his innocence contrasts starkly with the cynicism of his generals and more seasoned underlings. Yet, at the same time, he also realizes he will be judged for his actions in a time of crisis, much like his predecessor, and Kennedy’s contemporary, Nikita Khrushchev.
Chernobyl does not spare the viewer the horrors of radiation exposure. Echoing the shocking scenes Alan Renais’ cosumentary Hiroshima Mon Amour, the consequences of radiation sickness are gruesome as living bodies decompose, eventually to be entombed ingloriously in anonymous lead caskets encased in cement. One soon understands why officials hesitated to publicly reveal the severity of the effects of the disaster. Ilya Repin’s painting Ivan the Terrible and His Son Ivan is clearly visible to the viewer during scenes in the Kremlin. Just as the Tsar depicted in the painting realizes that the Tsarevich’s would is fatal, the Soviet government knows that the spread of radiation and information about the the incident could subvert the state’s authority.
Harris drives the series in the role of chemist Valery Legasov. Shy and nervous beneath the dull green and brown lighting and stark, brutalist architecture, he is desperate to convince incredulous Soviet apparatchiks of the scale of the radiological devastation. Legasov employs dry data rather than charisma to convince them that saving face is less important than preventing large-scale human carnage. As nuclear physicist Ulana Khomyuk, Watson extracts details about the explosion from surviving technicians in deathbed-like confessions. It is here where both scientists face crises of faith in the system; they realize the limits of absolute truth when the state blames human error rather than the flaws they have discovered in the reactor’s design.
In a pivotal scene, an 82-year-old woman milking her cow refuses to evacuate after officials order entire villages and towns surrounding the reactor cleared. The old woman cites her experience in the Bolshevik Revolution, the deliberate starvation of millions in the Ukrainian Holodomor, the German invasion, and the general hardship of farm life: her story spans the entirety of Soviet history. When, in desperation, an insistent soldier shoots her cow – it would have been destroyed eventually – you see in its lifeless eye a foreshadowing of the death of a once-powerful empire. One wonders if the woman will long enough to see its dissolution in 1991.
As a stark contrast to swaggering inner-city police procedurals and the current obsession with fantasy, Chernobyl triumphs by reminding us of the real-life fragility of our relationship with the planet, and the degree to which our lives are hostage to power and politics.