This time I’m not going to write a review on a work of imagination but rather on the visual conceptualization of an historical fact, one that shows how reality can surpass any kind of speculative effort: the disaster that occurred at the Chernobyl nuclear plant in April 1986.
On hindsight, that incident might very well have been the premise of a devastating post-apocalyptic scenario like the ones we often read in books, and learning about the details at the root of the Chernobyl tragedy made me realize how close we came to turning those speculations into a frightening reality.
Back then, as the events were unfolding, we observed them through the images of the news services and as it so often happens, they took on that patina of unreality we have come to associate with filmed reports – present yet distant, observed but not factually grasped. I remember that, besides the concern for what was an unprecedented occurrence, the only negative consequences suffered (at least where I live) were limited to the precautionary exclusion of some foodstuffs. More an annoyance than anything else. And yet there was this definite awareness of something momentous happening, even at that safe (?) distance, so that once this miniseries was announced I was eager to fill all the blank spaces left by that perceptual remoteness: what I found was much more, not only the detailed, unembellished report of a terrible disaster, but also a connection with the suffering humanity who lived through those events and bore the brunt of their aftermath.
As history reminds us, on the night of April 26th, 1986, the reactor nr. 4 of the Chernobyl nuclear plant exploded, leaving a gaping maw that discharged massive amounts of radiation into the air and left an equally massive fire in its wake, a conflagration that the intervening firemen struggled to put out. And that was just the beginning, as the consequences of an incident that should not have happened carried forward in the following weeks and months, and are still markedly present now, 33 years later.
There has been a strong negative reaction to HBO’s Chernobyl from official Russian sources, which did not hide their profound irritation at the events’ portrayal: I can understand how this series might have reopened old wounds, particularly when considering that the cover-up attempted at the time turned up to be image-tarnishing, but in truth this series strove to maintain a documentary approach, and what’s more important it chose to focus more on the human side of the tragedy rather than on the political one. That human side is indeed the most touching, most heart-wrenching element of the narrative, and here is where I will concentrate my review, because apart from all technical considerations, or the need to assign blame, human beings were the most disastrously affected by what happened that day.
Chernobyl portrays both the victims and the heroes of the tragedy: the former are primarily represented by the firemen, the first responders after the reactor blew – sent to the plant without the barest knowledge of what had really happened and performing their duty in an extremely hazardous environment, one that was bound to kill them in the space of a few weeks. And then there are the citizens of the adjacent city of Pripyat, where the families of the plant’s workers lived: the scene that most struck me, for what I knew would be the consequences, is the one where a group of people stands on a bridge looking at the spectacle of the burning reactor, marveling at the weird colors displayed, totally unaware of the reason for the unusual phenomenon. The choice of the scene’s director was to show it in slow motion, as the night wind carries the ashes from the fire toward the bridge and showers the people – adults and children both – with a deadly fall: the emotional impact of such obliviousness to an invisible and merciless enemy is something that requires no words.
Alongside the unwitting victims of nuclear contamination, there were those – and they were many, indeed – who willingly chose to go toward the peril, knowing the full extent of the consequences but at the same time aware that their intervention would save many more lives and avoid a bigger catastrophe. Among them, the shinier example comes from the three engineers who volunteered to swim through highly contaminated water to open the valves of a drainage system: the whole sequence – like many in this series – moves in total silence, broken only by the labored breath of the three men behind their protective masks and the frenzied ticking of the Geiger counters, and I dare anyone watching it not to cringe in empathy while following the men’s progress in the darkness, or not to be overwhelmed by emotion as they emerge, jubilant for the success of their hazardous endeavor, with smiles on their faces that belie the ordeal they just endured.
Those three men were not the only ones, however: the critical situation of the reactor required the building of a cooling system underneath it, and that job was handled by miners who worked tirelessly in extreme conditions so that worse consequences could be averted. Or again, the thousands – literally thousands – of people who went on the reactor’s roof to shovel away the radioactive debris, working in 90 second shifts to try and keep the irradiation as contained as possible: this is another one of those emotionally tense scenes shot without dialogue, where the men’s need for speed and fear translate into jerking motions that convey their turmoil more than anything else.
Sequences like the ones I mentioned are the reason for my deep involvement in the story being told, and my admiration for the work of both scriptwriter and director: it would have been all too easy to fall into a sentimentalist trap and imbue the narrative with maudlin feelings, but Chernobyl choose a different path, that of a stark, restrained report of the facts, sustained by a minimalist photography using de-saturated colors and a barely perceptible soundtrack that nonetheless strongly suggested the mounting feeling of dread engendered by the events.
This review would not be complete without mentioning the excellent portrayal of the two main characters – Stellan Skarsgard in the role of Boris Shcherbina, the highly-placed politician sent to oversee the investigative commission, and Jared Harris as Valery Legasov, the nuclear physicist expert on the plant model employed at Chernobyl. At first the two men are at odds with each other, their points of view poles apart as Shcherbina is intent on toeing the official line and highly ignorant of the short- and long-range consequences of what just happened, while Legasov is quietly determined to uncover the truth no matter what. With time the two of them slightly shift toward each other’s stance, as their mutual respect grows toward a tentative, if unexpressed, friendship cemented by the gloomy realization that their very presence in the disaster area might have curtailed their life expectancy.
It’s apparent that Chernobyl is not an easy story to follow, imbued as it is with the painfully emotional baggage it carries – still, I strongly advise you to watch it, if nothing else for its historical value: for us who were there at the time it will mean better understanding of what happened; for those who were too young or as yet unborn, because it’s a piece of our past that should be known and remembered. It’s a hard, harsh road to travel, but I don’t regret having been a witness to it all, even from the comfort and safety of my home, and I hope many will join me in celebrating the memory of all those who suffered because of that tragedy.