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Tuesday, April 16, 2024

Review: “Chernobyl”

HBO miniseries sparks interest in history’s worst nuclear disaster

Three-and-a-half million people were physically affected by the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, were removed from their homes and suffered from radiation poisoning. The land directly surrounding the site of the nuclear reactor explosion is still radioactive to this day. Yet — aside from the mere mention in a history class — the details, significance and contention embedded within this disaster have long been overlooked. Don’t be so quick to blame a faulty American education system. Many of the stories from Chernobyl — or the accurate ones, at least —  have been suppressed by the Soviet media for decades.

Directed by Johan Renck, the HBO six-episode miniseries “Chernobyl,” released on May 6, has gifted us the narrative of this historical event. From moments before the disaster to the unfolding of the event and its aftermath, the story of Chernobyl is detailed and intimate. The human impact, amount of lives lost and affected and the grotesqueness of the death toll are all stressed. These aspects are particularly manifested within the real-life story of Lyudmilla Ignatenko (played by Jessie Buckley), who loses both her baby during childbirth and her husband who was on-site at the explosion.

Not only can viewers better grasp a qualitative historical understanding through stories like Ignatenko’s, but “Chernobyl” simultaneously terrifies the audience. The horror comes from the sweeping and relentless nature of radiation poisoning. Like a modern bubonic plague, no person, child or animal was safe from exposure. The makeup artists, indeed, do not shy away from disturbing representations of a body suffering from severe radiation exposure. 

Such honesty makes the viewer not only acknowledge that an event as horrific as this did happen, but also realize that it could happen again. “Chernobyl” serves as a reminder of the risks of moving towards modernity; the increased use of nuclear power poses serious threats if those holding its power do not tread lightly. And as we contemporarily battle with foreign nations over nuclear power, the audience might gain a new perspective concerning the possibly damning threats of such a power source within these unsteady relationships.

The more terrifying aspect of the show is the naivety of the public caused by governmental lies. Thus, a more significant and controversial aspect of the miniseries is ushered in: the critique of a government’s relation to the truth and its people. As protagonist and nuclear physicist Valery Lgasov (played byJared Harris) — with the help of Ulana Khomyuk (played by Emily Watson) — seek to uncover the truth of Chernobyl disaster, they discover it was the Soviet government’s cheap decision to use graphite in the reactors that caused the explosion.

If one considers the Cold War period of the disaster, a speedy development process might seem appealing. Afterall, according to one of the government officials, “our power comes from the perception of our power.” Therefore, the miniseries reveals the real-life disaster was the fault of institutional, communist carelessness.  

While this thematic conclusion of Chernobyl is historically accurate, the same cannot be said about other details. Most significantly, Khomyuk’s character was created to represent the multitude of scientists who assisted Lgasov. While it might be understandable to combine characters for the sake of time and money, it makes Lgasov’s character appear more like a martyr than a lead scientist who relied on the skills and knowledge of others. This might serve as a disservice to the forgotten scientists and taint the historical reliability of the miniseries. 

While I would not say “Chernobyl” as a whole isn’t to be trusted, learning that fact at the end did make me question the fine details of the show. Especially given modern tensions with Russia, I’m weary of all media content that creates a false narrative or “fake news” — somewhat ironically.

The overall message of the miniseries is nonetheless accurate: It is our responsibility to question our government. All people are capable of making horrific mistakes, all people are capable of running a test under faulty conditions. It is our responsibility, therefore, to create a government that is posed to morally and logically check us. Our own lives seem to depend on it both then and now.

Written by: Caroline Rutten — arts@theaggie.org 


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