Posts Tagged ‘HBO’

Poster for Chernobyl (2019, scripted Craig Mazin, directed Johan Renck)

Lyudmilla Ignatenko (Jessie Buckley) looking through the plastic (her baby still died of radiation) at her husband dying howling and wretched with pain

For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled — Richard Feynman, Appendix F on the causes of the Challenger disaster

The truth doesn’t care about our needs or wants.
It doesn’t care about our governments, our ideologies, our religions.
It will lie in wait for all time
And this, at last, is the gift of Chernobyl.
Where I once would fear the cost of truth, now I only ask: What is the cost of lies?
— over-voice of Valery Legasov


Chernobyl is not a summer movie — it is a riveting melodrama whose political implications should be frighteningly relevant in political worlds shaped by man (Trump) whose modus vivendi is by lying, small, big, outrageous, cruel, bigoted and dangerous lies. The history we choose to tell each year is the one that we intuits matters that year (not that nuclear power plants as potentially catastrophic places are limited in time or space) Anibundel reads the movie succinctly through the perspective Marzin sets up: the cost of lying was then and will be again limitless suffering and the sacrifice of lives and worlds of thousands of people. I write to add another, from Richard Feynman about how NASA operated and produced the Challenger disaster, and also uttered in the concluding eloquent voice-over of film’s learned scientist, Valery Legasov (played painfully effectively by Jared Harris): there are limits to how far you can manipulate the natural world and coerce frightened powerless people to serve the interests of ambitious men whose pride and position in an organization for them take precedence over everything else.

Jared Harris makes the movie, he just carries it

This dual lesson is dramatized in five episodes as carefully laid out as HBO’s previous political film this year: Ava DuVernay’s When They See Us. Most people recognize that HBO movies have had distinguishing features for some time (contemporary subjects or treatment, box-office brilliant actors, quality production); they have recently added a new one: the hard-hitting demonstration. Both movies are well-proportioned wholes, clearly set out, complete and (to quote George Eliot) “natty” as nuts on a stem. It may seem peculiar to use aesthetic language about episodes which drain us with the horror of what they are presenting, but the film’s effect is so strong because they are so effectively plotted.

The explosion

The first episode throws us in medias res (though we only realize this when we come to the end of the last episode), the high crisis of an exploded nuclear plant core, catapulting into the air, everywhere in the peopled environment burning lethal poisons. We experience the explosion from the point of view of those it first impacted: the people driven to set it off and the people all around the reactor, among whom we see the immediate chief culprits, a boss of the unit, Anatoly Dyatlov (Paul Ritter), who was told to get the test done that night “or else”, and his boss, Viktor Bryukhanov (Con O’Neil), manager of the Chernobyl plant; the first responder firemen and their families, where we follow the heart-breaking story of Vasily Ignatenko (Adam Nagaitis) and his wife. Our central protagonist is among those called out of bed, Legasov (Jared Harris) by a high ranking officer in the communist party, also in charge of the department of energy (and perhaps other related things) in the Soviet gov’t, Boris Shcherbina (played by Stellan Skarsgård)

“Boris moves from hostility and antagonism towards Legasov to an effective working relationship, both emerging as decent men

Each episode focuses on one or more incidents which are terrifying to watch, where the film-makers pull out all their techniques so that we shall feel the visceral pain, hardness of task, sheer physical stuff people were required to cope to the death with. In this first men are uselessly exposed to acute radiation as they try to hose the nuclear bomb down (as if it were a fire), make visual inspections, go into the area to try to prevent various components coming together to cause a meltdown (this was hopeless as it was happening). And each episode dramatizes different groups trying to cover up some aspect of what happened, no matter whose or how many deaths this causes, and each time the group is thwarted because they cannot stop the natural processes going on and find it politically and humanely impossible to let death spread everywhere. We see how small and vulnerable we are singly and in large groups too

Inside just one of the terrified engineers, Leonid Toptunov (Robert Emms)

By the second episode people in nearby countries are registering spikes in radiation, which are reported in newspapers and so cannot be dismissed. Slowly the various officials are driven to take what has happened seriously; they would like to deny and refute all the Legasov and a woman scientist, a single character who stands for the many scientists who became involved, Ulana Khomyuk (Emily Watson) have to tell them. What she understands immediately and travels to tell the leaders of this disaster is the lava-like mess of molten fuel threatening to melt down into the earth would render the ground water of Ukraine’s 50 million inhabitants toxic for life.

Here she has realized the air has been contaminated

They aksi learn unless they follow what these two have to say, they are confronted with immediate death — they must not fly heliocopters over the core even if that’s convenient; they have to get rid of the radioactive graphite (not deny its there) and boron and sand is what must be poured on the fire.

We see meetings of high officials, including someone playing Gorbachev, and evacuation begins. Another motif which was seen in the first episode emerges explicitly: this is a society where people volunteer to help one another, where the idea that we are socially connected as groups and to help ourselves, we must contribute all our energies and talents (without seeking an individual big reward) seems to shape people’s behavior. We see three of the engineers go on a lethal mission to drain water (basically turn by hand valves) to prevent a meltdown (it happens in part anyway). In the third episode the miners called up to excavate the area below the central reactor — in terrific heat, subject to radiation (only 100 of 400 lived past 40) — Liam Nelson their captain

They eventually work naked because that is the best way to endure the heat, the clothes they are given to protect them are useless

The moment of highest admiration in the five hours is for these working class men, doing hard and dangerous work — the officials (“bureaucrats”) have to confront the necessity of truth here, for lie, prevaricate, evade and the captain will take his men back to their usual mining. The hospital is now overwhelmed; we see individual vignettes

and we follow Lyudmilla as she frantically tries to reach her husband, follows him to Moscow and will not be stopped from seeing and comforting him until she can no longer reach emotionally, much less physically. A moment of strong poignancy (the film works by contrasts) is that where we see her standing with a group of women watching a line of lead coffins (in which what was left of their husband’s bodies) are placed into a deep hole and boron and sand poured over them.

The instructions given a group of men who have to behave as close as they can to quick-moving robots:

Because of the nature of the working area, you will each have no more than 90 seconds to solve this problem.
Listen carefully to each of my instructions, and do exactly as you have been told.
This is for your own safety and the safety of your comrades.
You will enter Reactor Building Three, climb the stairs but do not immediately proceed to the roof.
When you get to the top, wait inside, behind the entrance to the roof and catch your breath.
You will need it for what comes next.
This is the working area.
We must clear the graphite.
Some of it is in blocks, weighing approximately 40 to 50 kilograms.
They all must be thrown over the edge here.
Watch your comrades moving fast from this opening, then turning to the left, and entering the workspace here.
Take care not to stumble.
There’s a hole in the roof.
Take care not to fall.
You will need to move quickly, and you will need to move carefully.
Do you understand your mission as I have described it? Yes, Comrade General.
These are the most important 90 seconds of your lives.
Commit your task to memory, then do your job.
It’s time to go.
After 90 seconds, I will ring a bell.

It seems (from comments and other reviews) that perhaps the hardest episode is in the fourth: we watch an older man teaching a younger one to gun down and kill all the pet animals left behind in an evacuated city. The POV is that of the boy. I had to turn away as a dog came leaping forward, only to realize something was wrong and be shot. The boy moves from inability to kill, to inability to shoot more than once in order to be sure and (so his mentor tells him) “prevent the animal from suffering,” to killing and shooting grimly. We see the animals hiding, one aging cat looking puzzled, and a group of puppies around a mother. We are glad not to have to watch when the older man ushers out the boy and so it’s (only?) the repeated shots and sudden cries that tell us what is happening. Read and see the story as told by Svetlana Alexievich (actual camera pictures of the animals).

But the strongest episode is the concluding one, where we realize that in fact what happened can be explained. First the point is being made that so often we are told things are complicated, complex and cannot be unraveled and they can. Structurally (or as a movie), the effect is something like a mystery, only in this movie almost everyone we see does not want the explanation.

I found the explanation fascinating — it may be that this scene cannot have taken place quite in the coherent full blown way it did ….

The episode cannot wholly rely on testimony in the courtroom: it’s framed by a brief conversation where we experience how Bryukhanov bullied Dyatlov, how he was himself allured by the prospect of replacing Fomin (Adrian Rawlins) if he could pull off this hard feat (test the safety of the plant is the irony). Then bravely and against protests, Legasov patiently explains how reactors work and how this disaster happened (partly no one in the room truly understood what they were dealing with) and insists there is a serious flaw in the way 16 nuclear reactors are designed, and the reason they has not been fixed, is it would cost a great deal of money to redesign the reactors. For this by the end of the episode Legasov has been mortally threatened but let to live (as it would look bad after his testimony) so “merely” lost his job, salary, place in the world, the ability to communicate with others.

The film opened with him recording on a tape this story, putting the tapes in a bucket, hiding the bucket and then hanging himself; it closes with his over-voice and then (just as DuVernay does at the end of When They See Us), photos of the real people played by these marvelous actors. Once again this is very effective.

Valery Legasov at a Vienna conference

We have seen that Lyudmilla lost her baby and are just told she had multiple strokes and was herself told she would never have children — because she exposed herself to stay near her husband. In fact she is one of those who survive and today lives in Kiev with her son. Most of the characters we see died of cancer.

It’s important not to see this as story about communism or a particular culture at all, and to say that the inferences apply to more than larger political issues. The same sort of cover-up was attempted over the Challenger and it was only Richard Feynman’s Appendix F which told the truth. As everyone knows who read Feynman’s report and his story of the Challenger, the reason the Challenger went up in January when the weather was too cold and the o-rings could not dilate was due to several decisions which ignored nature: among these, one, they built the thing top down and they knew they had a design failure: the o-rings were not originally designed to fill a gap when the glue hardens. Nonetheless, they persisted in relying on this. And two, they knew that they needed the weather to be warm or above a certain temperature. Nonetheless, they went through with a January launch on a very cold morning because that was the day the State of the Union address is given, and Reagan wanted a publicity stunt: that he would give the state of the union address the evening after this launch.

In the flashback scenes in the final episode (interspersed and juxtaposed with Legasov’s lesson to judges and jury) the engineers (Akimov, Toptunov and others) in the room knew enough to know this was terrifically dangerous and they were breaking all protocol — they had to be bullied and threatened to get them to do it, and when they saw the core explode (and in effect the reactor turn into a nuclear bomb), were driven to lie and not tell what had happened. How: by the threat of loss of job, or loss of promotion, or their place in the organization. This is how all bullies (including Trump who backs this up by suing you, and then paying you to stay silent) frighten people. We are so susceptible to these sorts of threats. Now Dyatlov was immediately responsible but the situation that led to that was the same as the one at NASA: a refusal to spend money, a refusal to fix a design flaw, and not educating and giving authority to people involved. The human dimension of this film drills down to everyday life.

You can read the scripts online

Each episode tough & riveting to watch, each had remarkable heroism, and remarkable unspeakable pain. The story itself (as Arendt suggested about the nature of evil) at core is the banal one of the behavior of human beings trying to get promoted, protect a job; the refusal of a gov’t to spend money for public safety. And most people lie or they fall silent. If they can find a group to belong to, they might speak out as a member of that group.


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