Fallout 86: A review of HBO’s Chernobyl

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Image owned by HBO and from WhatCulture (Soviet firemen face a threat they could never fight.)

The 1980s’ American view of the USSR under Reagan depended on your political or philosophical perspective.

While I believe no one really thought that the other side of the iron curtain was better than America, many have questioned on a fundamental level how different the two sides were.

Aside from the obvious, objective variations in economic system, representation( or lack thereof) of the people and taste in liquor, one thing was truly the same and our popular culture rarely brought up that aspect of the Reds: they were human like us and they had innocents among them. The “othering” effect that is instinctual to ourselves is in many ways the worst curse of our evolution. While it is right to be skeptical of those we might not know, it may prevent us from making peace and not stigmatizing the other.

Chernobyl from HBO is about many more things than just the humanity of the USSR’s populace.

It’s an accurate as possible recreation of the worst nuclear accident in human history. It’s an examination and condemnation of the Soviet political system which is poetically and prophetically, self destructive. It’s a showcase of people you don’t imagine doing the right thing or even the moral thing doing so because there was no other way. It’s truly an allegory to the ongoing, well founded fears we have of contemporary politics and their almost certainly cataclysmic consequences.

It is all of these things. Yet, it is about, above all, whether or not we as a species truly deserve to persevere if we keep on willingly sabotaging ourselves and for what? Humanity’s greatest weakness is our horrible, long term memory. Even the things we do remember we often misconstrue to fit our “truth” rather than the pitiless truth.

Valery Legasov ( Jared Harris) is the nuclear scientist who just by going to the site of the Chernobyl accident, condemns himself to a slow years-long death, joining the thousands of others which may number as many as 93,000. Joined by Soviet party-man Scherbina(Stellan Skarsgard) and Khumchov (Emily Watson), a Russian scientist acting as an amalgamation of all the Soviet scientists who risked death either by the open reactor or by the KGB, struggle to figure out a problem that no one has ever faced and if we are fortunate, never again will.

I know the nature of America’s Three Mile Island incident is different than Chernobyl’s and was in the end, inconsequential in terms of injury. It was more a scare that woke us up in time to how regulation of this source of power is a matter of life or death. I can’t help but wonder what would be the nation’s future had that nuclear power plant in Pennsylvania ended up like the one in present day Ukraine.

I imagine the lack of keeping state secrets in comparison to the USSR and a more public willingness to accept fault would’ve made the response to such a crisis rational. Even in the best of responses, a Chernobyl in America would’ve been a nightmare.

As the miniseries progresses, starting right after the reactor explodes and dooms the surrounding area in the long term,through the containment of the open reactor to the messy cleanup and finally deciding how to prosecute those responsible which would end up impossible, even in the glasnost era of Soviet Russia, we witness a horror story that really happened.

The score by Hildur Gudnadottir, underscores not only the deathly seriousness of what is being dramatized, it conveys an underlying sorrow. It is a symphony that both haunts and brings tears to the eyes. For those who haven’t yet seen the show, imagine listening to the soundtrack by itself while accompanied by descriptions of what happened or to similar tragedies. It’s enough to chill.

What more I can say of Gudnadottir’s work is that guy needs to score the next Fallout game.

As this is a dramatization of a real historical event, not every detail or way the characters act can hope to match reality. The show is very humble, especially at the end, of acknowledging the paradox of even an earnest and fact-checked presentation of the event. The full truth of how it happened can never be played out on screen a hundred percent.

What matters is that Chernobyl is a masterful though imperfect by-its-nature telling of one of the darkest warnings about human error ever known. Britain had the Titanic, Germany had the Hindenburg, my country had the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, Russia had Chernobyl.

Again, we are reminded that our emphasis on pride before reason or not taking into account everything needed to make something in life work properly has often come back to cost us. It is a lesson we cannot keep as long as we need, namely forever. Chernobyl was a lesson that this series taught me nearly cost us half of Europe and almost as many people as that died in all of World War 2.

In spite of the honorable tribute to the innocent men, women and children who died and suffered from Chernobyl, one utterly bleak but pertinent question comes to my mind. Are we too far gone?

Whether intentional or not, this could likely just have been indicative of how people in the USSR lived, the excessive smoking of most of the characters, good, bad or inbetween, sticks out.

As I hope you would know by know, smoking is bad for you. It gives you a wide range of horrible problems, one of them cancer by the throat, by the lungs or wherever else likely. One of the many horrors that Chernobyl wreaked in real life and on screen is cancer. Legasov and Scherbina contract it terminally in the fight for containment and cleanup. Even the people we root for are doomed.

Perhaps the heavy use of smoking is symbolic of a rot, not only of the Russian system the cast is made up of, but of humanity. In this fight against an invisible enemy, we are poisoning ourselves, recreationally, conscious or not.

What hope do we have if we are that willing to forgo our survival at least on an individual level? Despite all the glimpses of hope and yearning for the truth that Chernobyl explores and vouches for, a more terrifying possible theme rises like the fatal isotopes from the blown open reactor.

Perhaps, the only way humanity learns anything for good is when it is too late. Even then, some will still be too damn stubborn, at least on the outside. I live with the knowledge that climate change is a truth that we should be facing head on right now. We should’ve been battling it yesterday.

A sinister part of me would actually prefer if the status quo went unchecked, if only to enjoy the feeling of petty satisfaction that me and many others were right in the end. I would rather be both right and somehow have a victory against climate change. You know, continuation of the species and all that.

Chernobyl sticks with you not because something scary and tragic has happened to us in the past. It sticks because it’s happening right now and maybe we don’t deserve another Legasov, Scherbina or Khumchov to bail us out.

I hope for all our sakes that last part is just me.

Music owned by HBO and from Original Score

 

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