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Our Dark Summertime Binge: HBO’s “Chernobyl”

Chernobyl!

Stellan Skarsgård, Emily Watson, and Jared Harris handling the truth.

Previously on Midlife Crisis Crossover: with weeks to go till vacation and no pressing obligations, my wife Anne and I have been bingeing a few different shows together, while I’ve done some additional grim watching on the side. Certainly not through careful planning on our part, each of the shows has had their own depressing and/or tragic aspects. Veronica Mars season 4 had its mad-bomber mystery and its upsetting finale. Season 2 of Hulu’s Light as a Feather made teen horror out of a slumber party game. The Netflix documelodrama The Last Czars reminded us Russian history is more fatalistic than many of our TV stories. Season One of Chopped revealed its secret origin as a parable of man’s inhumanity to man.

I had expected this special MCC miniseries to conclude with the Chopped entry. Then one unexpected August day our cable TV provider announced their next annual or semiannual “preview weekend”, that generous time of year when all subscribers are allowed to watch HBO free for a limited span to see what pop-culture touchstones they’re missing. We haven’t subscribed to any premium channels in ages. We live on, find other things to do, and satisfy ourselves with the money that our uncoolness saves us. But we will occasionally brake for free prestige TV when opportunities intersect our path and trip us up.

Apropos of too many things, we ran right back to the subject of Russian history. This time, though, it was ripped from the headlines within our own lifespans.

I was 13 when Chernobyl happened, back in the days when nuclear wars, nuclear meltdowns, and nuclear families were pressing zeitgeist concerns. Headline news on the subject was necessarily spotty and speculative because the latter days of the Cold War were not a time for candid sharing between the US and the USSR. We knew something awful had happened way over there that involved lethal radiation and upheaval of uncountable lives. And by “uncountable” I mean we had no idea if the accident had killed five or five million. Getting real-time updates on faraway catastrophes was next to impossible. Western journalists weren’t exactly welcomed behind the Iron Curtain with open arms. And nobody in Russia was Instagramming much in those days.

HBO’s recent five-part miniseries Chernobyl aimed to tell a version of the true story at long last. Drawing on a number of sources (some less scientific than others), director Johan Renck (who’s worked on Breaking Bad and other cable dramas) and writer Craig Mazin (The Hangover 2 and 3, Scary Movie 3 and 4) discover inroads to translate the incident into a Hollywood thriller — not the action-packed kind with shoot-’em-ups or car chases, but the more cerebral kind where masterful thespians over 50 have to sort out a dire situation using their combined powers of down-and-dirty detective work, STEM research laced with polysyllabic verisimilitude, and angry speeches that scorch the skin and hair off any extras within hearing range. I’m pretty okay with this approach.

Leading the charge into the event is Jared Harris (Mad Men, Fringe) as Valery Legasov, a real-life leading scientist within the Kurchatov Institute of Atomic Energy who spearheaded the investigation into whatever mysteriously awful thing happened at Reactor #4 that sent fireballs into the nighttime sky and spewed pieces of walls and graphite for kilometers around. Legasov sees troubling evidence the reactor exploded, which the government insists could only happen if someone screwed up, which is impossible on principle because Soviet Union. But they need to know what happened, who was responsible, and how they can ensure this disaster can never, ever happen again in any other reactors nationwide — over a dozen more built using the same product design best described as corner-cutting-edge.

With no political clout to open the necessary doors or minds, Legasov finds himself partnered with Boris Shcherbina from the Council of Ministers, an old-school apparatchik who supports the government’s unwavering position that it can do no wrong, is never wrong, and will countenance no doubt or questions. Stellan Skarsgård (Deep Blue Sea, the Thor series) plays him as a curmudgeon fully devoted to his country. In their first day together, during a shared plane ride Legasov gives Shcherbina (and the Viewers at Home) a brief primer on How Nuclear Power Works and How It Could Fail. When an animated Legasov lets some uppity backtalk slip, Shcherbina is tempted to kick him out of the plane now that he’s gleaned new knowledge from this out-of-line civilian who will just never understand the government’s Big Picture like he does.

But slowly Shcherbina realizes he has to choose between willfully obtuse obedience that will solve nothing and potentially kill millions more as the years and unchecked radiation drag on, or accepting science is real, truths must be told, crow must be eaten, and untold lives must be saved. Their cranky buddy-Sov partnership drives much of the narrative and is among the miniseries’ many compelling parts. They eventually find a rhythm that works: Legasov informs Shcherbina of the necessary details they’re seeing right in front of them that only scientists can interpret properly; Shcherbina in turn converses with his military colleagues and superiors as if he’s the only one smart enough to know what’s really going on…which he kind of is, compared to them, thanks to Legasov acting as his Cyrano. By the end, their mutual respect reaches the unthinkable point where they’re on a first-name basis despite their disparity in social rank.

Their quest for truth stalls out until a third hero emerges — super-researcher Emily Watson (Gosford Park, Angela’s Ashes) as the fictional hivemind avatar of Every Competent Russian Scientist Ever. Faint radioactive readings in her lab in Minsk over 400 km north tell her something nuclear has occurred, and all clues point to Chernobyl as ground zero. Obviously she can’t comb the calamity or prevent further fallout and other side effects alone. The government has no reason to listen to her. She’s just a scientist. And a woman. She might as well be the village idiot. Within two conversatons she convinces Legasov’s of her science-cred graces and earns her spot on the team.

Science and politics collide as this trio works the case, examines the evidence, interviews the dying survivors, brainstorms ways to put out the weeks-long fire, and tries their best to coordinate wreckage cleanup and other possibly fatal consequences, the likes of which no other nation on Earth had ever seen or inflicted upon themselves. They weren’t dealing with a full-blown apocalypse, but they had to write themselves an instruction manual on how not to inch any closer to one.

In between scenes of science-ing the heck out of things, a candid dive into 1980s Russian politics reveals a machine not too far removed from some American counterparts. Their fearless leader Mikhail Gorbachev (David Dencik from Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy) oversees a few scenes to deliver a few edicts, but receives only limited, need-to-know status updates that convey minimum cause-and-effect and maximum Soviet infallibility. Another, older politico — presumably the Strom Thurmond of the bunch — rasps eloquent about Mother Russia and its inerrant supremacy. As with our own, these politicians are at their unhappiest when they barrel into facts they dislike and can’t warp. Their frowns and threats of punishment intensify when Our Heroes dare suggest that just because you don’t know how a thing happened doesn’t mean it didn’t happen, especially if you’re staring at evidence that it absolutely did happen.

Other actors come and go with short stories set among the pandemonium. Jessie Buckley (FX’s Taboo) is the wife of a firefighter who’s first on the scene and hence among the casualties of radiation poisoning from the debris. Barry Keoghan, one of the interchangeable young guys from Dunkirk, grabs some spotlight in Part Four as part of a task force assigned to euthanizing any and every stray pet left behind in the area, no matter how adorable or meme-ifiable they might be. Ralph Ineson (the dad from The Witch) supervises the cleanup effort on Chernobyl’s rooftops, a tense Timed Trial where conscripted minions each have 90 seconds to shovel away as much rubble as possible before grave harm sets in.

The most indelible takeaway is that stark, frightening imagery. The browns and grays of everyday USSR surroundings that give way to fire and ash. The explosion of Reactor #4 staged from a distance, heard and felt for miles around, which in turn keeps smoldering and coating the skies with the billowing, roiling smoke borne of man’s hubris. The unfettered chaos in the control room utterly mismanaged by Anatoly Dyatlov (Paul Ritter), portrayed here as the stubbornest, stupidest nuclear scientist in world history. The claustrophobic boardroom debates where impeccably dressed statesmen delegate the sweaty, grungy, gloomy damage-control tasks. The smiles and faiths fading in the face of citizens as their ignorance is used and betrayed. All of this is backed with an unearthly, unnerving score by Hildur Guðnadóttir (whose work will next be heard in Todd Phillips’ Joker) that permeates the atmosphere, the voice of moaning ghosts of the infected and forgotten.

Besides the thick-skulled Dyatlov being supremely grating (realistically so?), our only real qualms with Chernobyl occurred partway through Part 3 when I began checking the internet on the veracity of its depiction of nuclear science in general and Chernobyl in particular. The screenplay appears to be drawn chiefly from the stories of the survivors, their impressions and feelings and experiences, as opposed to recounts from the scientists themselves, who apparently didn’t run out and publish bestselling tell-alls. Subsequent to the miniseries finale, essays posted by Forbes, The New Yorker, and The BBC (among numerous others) from authorities on various subjects (science, politics, residents) disagree vehemently with minor and major details as presented, including but not limited to the implication of radiation poisoning as an Ebola-style contagion that people can transmit to each other. To an extent that’s the “Hollywood thriller” compromise in full effect, the threat level escalated because some viewers refuse to watch five hours of pasty white folks barking at each other. There’s a reason our cable provider doesn’t carry Russian C-SPAN.

We’re also not big fans of information being left out of things that’s later revealed in supplementary material. One sequence shows miners brought on board to tunnel beneath the power plant in order to install super-sized cooling machines underneath to prevent further meltdown and ground contamination. Their hard-driven sacrifice was poignant in context, but loses some resonance once you learn that whole mess over their heads cooled on its own before they were finished, thus rendering all that digging moot. We were tipped off to this by the behind-the-scenes featurette that HBO On Demand includes after each episode, which in this case included a vague comment from Jared Harris alluding to this fact of real-life futility.

Taken as a self-contained artifice unto itself, before I ran across Everything Chernobyl Got Wrong About Chernobyl or heard about its 19 pending Emmy nominations, Chernobyl the miniseries remains a powerful testament of scientific endeavor run afoul of blinkered ambition, mule-headed party loyalty failing to trump obvious logic and morality, political shortsightedness threatening to sacrifice lives for the sake of a blameless facade, and diligent science saving the lives of innocents, whether they understand what’s going on or not.

We’re still not interested in paying HBO’s exorbitant monthly fee, but works such as this one make these infrequent free-trial weekends all the more special, even if they leave us all the more depressed on Monday.

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