With the close to a perfect 10 star rating on IMDb and most other film and TV websites, HBO’s miniseries Chernobyl is hard to miss. Not only is the show turning your average joe into a nuclear engineer, but it’s also passing out an controversial message. We at 42.5 Degrees have a few thoughts about the series, the filmography and of course the messages it’s conveying.
What Happened in Chernobyl?
If you have no idea what the Chernobyl disaster entails, the miniseries will explain for you. But if you haven’t watched it and still have no idea here is a brief background and summary of Chernobyl and the USSR.
Chernobyl is situated in the Ukraine, about 20 kilometres away from the Belarusian border and 3km away from the nearest town; Pripyat. From 1947 to 1991 the USSR and the USA were locked in an exhausting political conflict known as the Cold War. Within this conflict both countries urged technological development in terms of military, economics and overall power, including the space race and an arms race. Since the end of the second world war, nuclear weapons were the next “big thing” to have as a superpower. The USSR became nuclear in 1949 after testing their first atom bomb and from then on, nuclear arms and nuclear energy have been a status of power amongst nations.
During the 1960s across the USSR, a nuclear initiative began working it’s way from paper to soil as many new nuclear power plants were constructed. One of them being Chernobyl. Chernobyl could arguably be one of the USSR’s most important nuclear plant due to it having four reactors, the highest number of reactors in any Soviet power plant. From 1971 to 1983, the power plant became functional. One reactor being turned on at a time over the decade. All was well until the events of 1986. Several sources suggest that the Chernobyl disaster was not the first of its kind, with reports of partial meltdowns, fires and an explosion being reported since 1957. However, none were as devastating or as dangerous.
In the early hours of 26th April 1986, at precisely 1:23am, reactor no. 4 exploded during a safety test. The initial reaction did not see the gravitas of the situation, with the general consensus that a water tank had exploded causing the fire on the roof. This is one reason why the nearby town was not evacuated until 36 hours after the incident; and even then, people where under the impression it would only be for a few days.
The consequences of the explosion are still felt to this day with over 200 kilometres squared (77 miles squared) spanning across Ukraine and Belarus uninhabitable, due to dangerous levels of radiation. At the time of the explosion, high levels of radiation were measured as far away as Sweden. Across Europe certain measures were put in place to keep the population safe including keeping children indoors and avoiding eating wild fruit and berries.
Politically, the Chernobyl disaster can arguably be a factor in the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991, as well as being a turning point in International Relations between the USSR and the USA. However, these points are not fully mentioned or utilised as a theme in the miniseries, so we won’t be analysing the effect Chernobyl had on these factors. And if we did want to delve into that we’d be here all day so we are going to save that argument for another post.
The American TV mini series Chernobyl has not been received with high praise globally. Of course the show has taken some dramatic liberties, with a lot of the events being dramatised to create some underlying messages, as well as keeping certain aspects easier to follow. For example Emily Watson’s character, Ulana Khomyuk. She is not based on a singular individual, as explained at the end of the series as well as on many interviews with the writers, she represents the supporting nuclear physicists, as well as the large percentage of women who worked in the science and medical field in the Soviet Union.
You can guess which countries are not overly impressed, and of course Russia is clapping back with its own version of events, reportedly to be released next year. This is after the news of certain individuals wanting to ban the HBO miniseries. The plot of the show is a different unfurling of events, as seen by former USSR state, blaming the explosion of reactor no. 4 on the interference of an American spy. However, as a mere adult in her early twenties, I can not comment on the true to life broadcasting and rumours that spread in the 1980s. This is mainly due to the age issue, I personally was not alive at the time of news broadcasts and the wide variety of articles, to be fully aware of how news unravelled in the west. That and finding reliable original sources has proven to be quite difficult.
The series is broken down into 5 episodes; “1:23:45″, “Please Remain Calm”, “Open Wide, O Earth”, “The Happiness of All Mankind”, and “Vichnaya Pamyat”. Svetlana Alexievich’s book: Voices of Chernobyl, plays a large part in the dialogue and events in the miniseries, the book itself being based on tapes and accounts from witnesses of the disaster. The main change apart from aforementioned Ulana Khomyuk, is the presence of Valery Legasov, the deputy director of the Kurchatov Institute of Atomic Energy, at the final court hearing depicted in the final episode. The trial also lasted weeks, not a singular day as the show suggests. I understand that this was done to make easier for viewer to comprehend. Yet this is not the main reason why this episode is the weakest link of the miniseries for me.
Vichnaya Pamyat, the final episode has several underlying messages. The presence of Legasov does ease the viewer into understanding the trial better, however he is also used as a device to take down the Soviet system. Serhii Plokhy’s book Chernobyl: The History of a Nuclear Catastrophe does back up the idea that the Soviet system is to blame for the disaster, being cheap in manufacturing as well as taking shortcuts to get things done faster. This is echoed in this trial scene with Legasov, responding to why the reactors are built the way they are, stating “It’s cheaper.”
The trial ends with Legasov explaining the reactor explosion is a metaphor for the Soviet Union: “Every lie we tell incurs a debt to the truth. Sooner or later, that debt is paid. That is how an RBMK reactor core explodes. Lies.” Not only is this something that wouldn’t have ever been said during a trial, but also an embellished or fantasised telling of a fictional court trial to completely demonise the Soviet Union, after a pretty accurate and respectful, yet dramatised, depiction of the events of the Chernobyl disaster.
Additionally, the use of constant confrontation instead of resignation also feels too fictional. Legasov uses confrontation coupled with reference to being a scientist to drive points to the Central Committee, something that probably would not have happened. Khomyuk’s character, albeit fictional, also uses this device of confrontation which seems even more fictional due to her gender. However, she can also be discounted entirely due to her fictional existence. This coupled with the constant repetition of “you’ll be shot if you don’t do this”, would never have happened, as with the introduction of the KGB in the series, people acknowledge what they do even when they don’t admit it. So something so blaise as speaking the words “or I’ll shoot you” seems very out of context.
The Videography Aesthetic and the Political
From start to finish, the drama is played out in an almost linear timeline. The only exception is the very beginning. To begin with we are introduced to Valery Legasov finishing recording tapes, feeding his cat and they committing suicide. The use of the end at the start sets us up for tragedy before we are introduced to Chernobyl. It sets the viewer up for a memorial, rather than a drama, that again is encapsulated in the last episode “Vichnaya Pamyat”, loosely translated from Belarusian, Ukrainian and Russian, means “Memory Eternal.”
The actual series itself really encapsulates the mood and tension of the 1980s in Eastern Europe. The choice of colour and low saturation in the cinematography are really significant. Blue is an inherently sad and cold colour, and is used to reflect the cold nature of decision making and politics within the series. It emphasizes the grey of the buildings and the overcast sky, strengthening the western ideal that the USSR was oppressive. The low saturation used sucks out any vibrancy any colour could have, replacing it with the bluer tint.
There is a lack of depiction of hierarchy and power in terms of material belongings and lifestyle. We are introduced to a level of living from the firemen and Valery Legasov, when in reality they would be living in two different worlds in terms of lifestyle. We are only given brief glimpses of the the Soviet relation with power and materialism, that does not accurately portray the reality of 1980s USSR. Another failure of power depiction is the use of fear as a manipulator. An example of this is when Legasov is threatened to be shot by Central Committee member Boris Shcherbina in the second episode. This is a continual theme that just is not accurate for the 1980s era of the Soviet Union.
There are some very odd shots in this miniseries, that as a videographer, make me uneasy. It’s not interesting or creative shots using thirds or certain perspectives, it’s just odd additions. Such as close up of feet walking away, or the angle used on certain buildings, the way certain scenes are being set up just didn’t sit right with me. I don’t know if this was done on purpose, or if I just noticed a very strange artistic directive, yet it does add to the odd nature of this miniseries.
The use of costume in this drama, again, reflects more sombre and simpler tones, whilst still encapsulating the attire of the decade. When it comes to accuracy, wardrobe did manage to fish out clothes from the era, but failed to recreate some of the gas masks and clean up attire, going for a more raincoat-y apparel instead of military uniform. As far as prosthetics and make-up go, the depiction of radiation poisoning, am I told by real life doctors, is scarily accurate, however the whole radiation from the patient and baby absorbing radiation is a hot topic of debate I do not want to get involved in as a non-medical individual.
Lastly the use of background music. The music used is a pulsating darker beat that does draw the viewer into a very foreboding smog. If you have access to surround sound or headphones, the experience changes exponentially as the music uses heavy panning from left to right, that engages the show in moving forward as well as dragging the viewer’s interest further into the show. The tonality is very low and the texture is thin, giving no fullness or comfort to the viewer. This coupled with the silences make the imagery powerful in a darker way.
If you are interested in seeing the side by side footage, this video, is very informative. The attention to detail in filmography is applaudable.
Interesting Engineering – How accurate is the Chernobyl Miniseries?
Cinema Blend – Factual Accuracy of Chernobyl
The Wrap – Russian Communist Party Call for a Ban
The Guardian – I Saw It With My Own Eyes
The Rewind – What was Chernobyl’s Message?
Hollywood Reporter – The Finale’s Message
Foundation for Economic Education – HBO’s Chernobyl is Stunning
Forbes – Top UCLA Doctor Denounces Chernobyl…
Vox – Chernobyl’s stella finale
The Moscow Times – Putin’s Media Struggle
CNET – Chernobyl was Bleak, Brutal and Unnecessary