HBO's Chernobyl: deftly horrifying

The opening scenes of HBO’s Chernobyl are as bleak and dully miserable as its protagonist, the Soviet scientist Valery Legasov, himself. We see him first in a horrible little flat, green-lit with bad fluorescents, a man counting down his life in minutes: a man with no other way out. Whatever story he’s just told his tape recorder is very obviously something dreadful, and we cut directly from his own departure-via-suicide to the event itself, witnessed from the city of Pripyat by a young woman who knows without being told that the fire which her husband will shortly be called to fight is no ordinary fire.

It is impossible not to compare HBO’s Chernobyl with the 2006 BBC version, Chernobyl: Surviving Disaster, written and directed by Nick Murphy, starring Adrian Edmondson of Young Ones fame as Legasov. In many ways the two versions are very similar – both open with Legasov’s last words, both employ British accents instead of faux-Russian ones, both have similar structures. Many scenes are nearly identical, word for word – but this is because both productions are telling the same story, and faithfulness to that story results in extremely similar dialogue. Where they depart from one another is in their approach to the storytelling itself. HBO’s version is separated into multiple episodes, of which we have only yet seen the first one; the BBC chose to condense the entire narrative into a single hour. Edmondson’s Legasov talks to the camera in intercut sections, telling the story as it happened; his voiceover throughout lends the film a deliberate poignancy. He draws us through the narrative, skipping forward in time through the medium of his interviews with the tape recorder.

HBO’s Craig Mazin and Johan Renck have more space and time in which to tell this tale, and don’t need the shell-structure of interviews for Jared Harris, as Legasov, to lead us through the gaps. We’re going to get to see everything, the whole grueling miserable sequence.

From the firefighter’s wife we cut to the control room of Unit 4, moments after the explosion, and here is where things start to get truly tragic: as the audience, we know what’s happened, the scale of the disaster, and the poor bastards in the white surgical caps have no idea: will not believe it, cannot believe it, and are directed by the deputy chief engineer Dyatlov to address an altogether different and imaginary accident. It is Dyatlov who sends the operators down into the ruined heart of the plant, Dyatlov who insists there is nothing more terribly wrong than a hydrogen explosion, Dyatlov who refuses to listen when another operator, his exposed skin already turning scarlet, tells him there is no core, the core exploded, it’s on fire. It can’t be, of course. RBMK reactors don’t explode. Soviet engineering has no faults, the design is perfect, the blame lies with the operators. Anything else is unthinkable. Later on he will shout you didn’t see graphite on the ground, you didn’t, because it’s not there, just before collapsing in a fit of vomiting.

In the crushed and sagging corridors, with the alarm klaxon wailing, we have the sense of entering something vast and terribly damaged, a gut-shot giant who has not yet collapsed all the way. As the operators struggle through haze and rubble and fallen girders to reach their missing comrades, the scale of the plant becomes evident. This is not a large building: this is a huge building, and whatever has gone wrong is also huge. We see more and more men collapsing, faces burned horribly scarlet, convulsed with retching, and when they finally get to the reactor hall and see with their own eyes exactly what is left of Unit 4, staring into the terrible beauty of the burning reactor even as their skin turns red, we know they are dead; that they have died, are dying, that it is only a matter of time before they finish the process. They are, quite literally, cooked.

Much of what makes Chernobyl so powerful hinges on that fact: that we know what’s happening but the characters do not. When a curious firefighter picks up a piece of graphite moderator lying on the ground outside the ruined building and shortly afterward starts to scream in agony as the skin of his hand comes off, his buddy’s casual and unheeded warning “I dunno, don’t fuck with it” echoes for a long time. Running underneath the whole story is the profound tragic error of the Soviet approach to safety culture: reality is what we say it is. One of the most chilling scenes in the entire episode comes in a local Party committee meeting early on, in a bunker deep underground, when the full scope of the disaster has not yet been understood: when the people ask questions that are not in their best interest, they should simply be told to keep their minds on their labor, says the terrifying and somewhat Palpatinian ranking Party official. They are to lock down the city of Pripyat, and cut the telephone wires to halt the spread of distracting information. We shall all be rewarded for what we do here tonight, he says, and smiles: you can see the skull beneath the skin. This is our moment to shine.

Chernobyl’s foreshadowing is deftly handled. At one point a doctor, looking out at the distant fire from a hospital maternity ward, asks if the hospital stocks iodine pills; it seems like a random question unless you know that human thyroid glands are thirsty for iodine and, unless saturated with the regular kind, will soak up radioactive iodine-131 – released from the damaged reactor – like sponges, a reservoir of poison poised to kindle cancer. Her colleague scoffs: why should the hospital stock iodine pills? It’s all the answer we need. Another effective scene has very little dialogue at all, showing the Pripyat residents watching the plant burn, looking up in wonder as what looks like snow begins to fall. At the end we see the children of Pripyat walking to school, laughing and chatting with each other, in bright sunlight: just after their feet pass by, a dying bird falls to the sidewalk and convulses briefly before lying still.

The cinematography is excellent, the visual effects effective, rendering the scope of the damage viscerally clear. I can’t tell how much was filmed using some other very similar plant as a stand-in and how much is CGI, which tells you how good the CGI is. I particularly appreciate the unflinching depiction of what unthinkable doses of ionizing radiation do to humans; I’ve read IAEA reports of industrial-irradiator and criticality accidents (hi there, Mayak), and the descriptions of victims suffering from the acute central-nervous-system type of radiation sickness is right there on the screen. Even the little details, like the taste of metal in their mouths. It’s enormously satisfying to watch.

The soundtrack is minimal, very little familiar or recognizable music behind any of the scenes; what there is is faint, pulsing, vaguely ominous. It works exceptionally well in scenes where all we hear is that background music, rather than the cacophony that is clearly happening behind it; there’s a scene in which Dyatlov is half-carried between two guards past ambulances, stretchers, men and women who are clearly dying, firefighters with faces burned bright red, and in the distance the ruined reactor building still billowing black and lethal smoke, and we hear none of it. The realization unspools behind his eyes, as we watch, and the lack of voices or background noise makes the viewer feel as dazed and horrified, unmoored from reality, as he does.

The minimalism of the soundtrack is one of the crucial tonal differences between this Chernobyl  and the BBC film – which uses musical cues to brilliant effect. Leonid Kharitonov’s Red Army Choir recording of The Cliff is played at a particularly moving point, underscoring not just the narrative of the story but the underlying Soviet narrative itself, from the inside. The gorgeous, operatic presentation of a traditional folk song juxtaposed with what Legasov describes as unquestioned sacrifice illustrates what he calls the Soviet heart: it’s 1941 all over again, the same desperation, the same lack of readiness, the same courage.

None of Chernobyl’s actors, just like the BBC’s actors thirteen years earlier, attempt to perform Russian accents. Instead, they all speak with British accents. This is an extremely well-done choice, and one which I am glad was repeated by the HBO production. For one thing, fake Russian is inherently distracting and somewhat farcical, and serves to insert a kind of unnecessary barrier between viewer and film; for another, it makes no sense -- these people are speaking to one another in their own language within the story, rather than an accented foreign language. Having these people talk in a more familiar and ordinary way – to the American and British audience, at least – immediately serves to make the story more accessible. It’s the same concept behind doing Shakespeare with colloquial, conversational pacing and pronunciation, rather than ~declaiming~ it: the familiar cadences of speech render the other, the unfamiliar, the difficult to follow, into something immediately more ordinary and thus in some ways more real.

In coming episodes, we will see in detail the brutal struggle to put out the fire and to drain the water from the chambers underneath the reactor before what’s left of the core can melt all the way down and meet that water in an unthinkably massive thermal explosion, rendering large stretches of the Ukraine uninhabitable for the foreseeable future. There will very likely be a great deal of well-researched information presented in a way which renders it both accessible and understandable, which is a net positive – anything that can help people understand what is, and is not, true about radiation and reactor design and design-basis accidents is enormously welcome. We are also, I anticipate, going to be given lovingly graphic illustrations of the progression of radiation injury in man, most of which I’m going to have to close my eyes for. I can, and do, read about this stuff with avid interest; seeing it is not my cup of tea, but body-horror enthusiasts are going to have a ball.

In sum: you need to see this, for a number of reasons; it is a deftly conceived and executed horror story, made more horrific by the fact that it is real.

Link to the BBC version

I will be posting a separate discussion of reactor design and why Chernobyl cannot happen at all in any American nuclear power plant shortly, so stay tuned :)