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Radioactive Material: TRUTH AND LIES IN CHERNOBYL.

A meticulously designed re-creation of events surrounding the 1986 Ukrainian nuclear reactor meltdown, this HBO/Sky miniseries both depicts the political corruption and obfuscation of the day and carries echoes of today's discourse about post-truth and fake news. As GARRY WESTMORE argues, the show ultimately uses its dramatisations and elisions to convey the experiences of the victims and witnesses of the event - as well as the confusion, fear and suffering that characterised its fallout.

Not long after its fifth and final episode aired, HBO and Sky's miniseries Chernobyl became the highest-rated television series on the Internet Movie Database. (1) It would be easy to assume that this popularity is at least partially due to the tragic nature of the event it depicts: that being the 1986 meltdown of the No. 4 reactor of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in the then-Soviet-ruled Ukraine. After all, significant disasters are endlessly mined for the screen; whether they be terrorist attacks (United 93, Paul Greengrass, 2006; World Trade Center, Oliver Stone, 2006; Patriots Day, Peter Berg, 2016J, natural events (The Impossible, JA Bayona, 2012) or catastrophic engineering failures (Deepwater Horizon, Berg, 2016; Titanic, James Cameron, 1997), real-world tragedies are a source of boundless fascination for audiences.

So where does Chernobyl sit among this litany of on-screen disaster narratives? Thankfully, the miniseries is nuanced, believable and balanced, with part of its appeal coming from its ability to drag certain facts and minutiae of the Chernobyl explosion into the light - details that only those versed in the tragedy would be aware of. That these specifics would have been new to many viewers might be partly due to the USSR's cover-up attempts, but perhaps it has more to do with the way many of us consume news media (not to mention the fact that the event occurred before many viewers were born). In fact, the show's creator, Craig Mazin, has spoken of how, at the time of the disaster, he knew nothing beyond the superficial facts: 'Chernobyl was a nuclear power plant, and it blew up. That's it.' (2)

To illuminate these little-known details, the series presents a range of firsthand experiences of the meltdown itself, as well as those of people who were privy to the subsequent cover-up and clean-up. It casts an unflinching gaze over the unspeakable horrors of radiation poisoning, as well as a critical lens on the culture of Soviet rule, positing that fear, a lack of accountability, blind faith and willing ignorance all contributed to the initial disaster and what took place in its aftermath. While criticism is levelled at the Soviet hierarchy, Chernobyl also shows how further tragedies were only prevented due to the will and sacrifice of ordinary citizens.

The cost of lies

As Episode 1 begins, the audience is introduced to the show's protagonist, Valery Legasov (Jared Harris), whom audiences hear before they see. 'What is the cost of lies?' he asks, his words filtering through the crackle of a cassette recording, the camera taking the viewer around an apartment busy with files, notes and burning cigarettes. 'It's not that we'll mistake them for the truth; the real danger is that if we hear enough lies, then we no longer recognise the truth at all.'

Legasov's opening words lay bare the show's themes before viewers can properly orient themselves. By the time the show's title card appears six minutes in, he has hanged himself, but not before it's been established that he is under surveillance and has been trying to smuggle out his account of the Chernobyl explosion. Far from providing heavy-handed exposition and spoiling the character's fate, these opening minutes establish intrigue around Legasov and his role in a disaster that we have yet to see. It also touches on the audience's assumed lack of in-depth knowledge, and suggests that those details might have something to do with Legasov's surveillance and the desperate situation that he has found himself in.

It's not long before the 'cost of lies' Legasov speaks of is explored, with the audience thrust back two years and one minute from his suicide to the moments before the meltdown at Chernobyl. Initially, however, the camera tracks back to the apartment shared by Lyudmilla (Jessie Buckley) and Vasily (Adam Nagaitis) Ignatenko in the nearby city of Pripyat, where a distant explosion seen through their window rocks their building. Immediately, there's a sense that these characters will not be peripheral, and that they will not go untouched by the disaster.

The story continues in the control room of Chernobyl's No. 4 reactor, seconds after the explosion. It's here that we find deputy chief engineer Anatoly Dyatlov (Paul Ritter) ignoring numerous firsthand reports that the reactor has blown up, saying it's 'impossible' and that workers are 'delusional'. He continues to send workers to the reactor to open, cool and control it, misidentifying the explosion as a superficial roof fire. This results in the local fire brigade being called to put out a fire that cannot be put out, with Dyatlov even instructing one worker to call the next day's shift workers in early to rectify the situation.

Here, the show presents a microcosm of the dangers of a strict hierarchical system. Dyatlov remains ignorant as to the scale of the accident despite the evidence presented to him, and blames what he believes has transpired on his subordinates. When one of his workers considers disobeying an order, Dyatlov threatens him and continues to send workers towards a radioactive core they have every reason to believe is exposed. It's not clear if their sense of duty is driven solely by a fear of a superior or something else, but, either way, Dyatlov is presented as having little regard for the wellbeing of those below him.

As plant workers and firefighters try to rectify an impossible situation, the invisible threat that is radiation poisoning is communicated as workers moving through the plant come across colleagues with unusual and horrific burns. Others are suddenly physically ill, vomiting from the poison that has entered them. Outside, firefighters taste metal in the air, and minutes after picking up a piece of debris, one firefighter suffers a mysterious and agonising burn. As Episode 1 concludes, a group of Pripyat locals watch the blaze from a bridge looking directly towards the plant. Children dance in slow motion among the falling ash, the audience now fully aware of what they're being exposed to.

A circle of accountability

In Episode 2, the perspectives move further beyond Chernobyl and Pripyat to include Soviet power players all the way up to General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev (David Dencik). In these sequences, the series exposes the absurd acceptance in the corridors of power of reports that the reactor merely suffered a roof fire. It's here that Legasov enters the narrative, introduced more properly as deputy director of the IV Kurchatov Institute of Atomic Energy. During a high-level meeting in which he is instructed to stay quiet, Legasov identifies what has really occurred. By speaking up, he finds himself in an unlikely partnership with Boris Shcherbina (Stellan Skarsgard), a gruff career Communist Party man who initially pays Legasov and his concerns little heed. Legasov is also put on a collision course with the USSR's secret police, the KGB, infamous for their surveillance techniques and tendency to condemn citizens as treasonous with little proof. (3)

Later in the series, when Legasov confronts KGB chairman Charkov (Alan Williams) and questions the arrest of a colleague, the latter plays down the bogeyman image of the KGB, describing the organisation merely as a 'circle of accountability'. In fact, accountability in Chernobyl is shown to be far from circular - rather, a force that moves in a downward direction. Although criticism is levelled at Dyatlov and his supervisors, Legasov exonerates them partially in Episode 5 by citing a 'fatal flaw' that has been found in the design of Soviet-built RBMK (high-power channel-type) reactors, one that operators would have been unaware of. Nonetheless, Dyatlov and his superiors have the blame heaped on them, just as they did in real life.

The incompetence depicted in the series has drawn parallels to current governments and political arguments, with author Stephen King writing a post on Twitter comparing Chernobyl's authority figures to US President Donald Trump, whom he labelled 'a man of mediocre intelligence in charge of great power - economic, global - that he does not understand'. (4) Conservative commentator Dan Bongino retorted by tweeting that 'Chernobyl was a failure of socialism [...] the exact opposite of the Trump deregulation and tax cut agenda'. (5) Mazin, in response to this exchange, summarised the events depicted in the show differently: 'Chernobyl was a failure of humans whose loyalty to (or fear of) a broken governing party overruled their sense of decency and rationality.' (6)

Though Mazin hasn't gone so far as to say that Chernobyl is a direct response to the sitting US President, it's hard not to think of Trump and the 'post-truth' (7) era that he represents when Legasov remarks that 'when the truth offends, we lie and lie until we can no longer remember it is even there'. Trump, after all, has been the subject of an unprecedented amount of fact-checking while in office, during which time it's been suggested that he has made over 10,000 false or misleading claims. (8)

Somewhat ironically, it is Trump himself who has most prominently employed the term 'fake news' to discredit largely credible news outlets, even going so far as to falsely claim that he brought the term into mainstream discourse. (9) We have become so used to blatant lies being told en masse that outrage over them is steadily diminishing - to the point that there is little left to do but, as Legasov puts it in Chernobyl, 'abandon even the hope of truth and content ourselves instead with stories'.

Transparency of production

The production of a historical-fiction film or small-screen series will often have a responsibility to the truth of the events depicted, as misrepresentation can be harmful to the memory of those involved and also leave a production open to accusations of political (or other forms of) bias.

Getting to the heart of an event as significant as the Chernobyl disaster is difficult, especially given the attempted cover-up and obfuscation of facts evident in Russia even to this day. For instance, in response to the release of Chernobyl, Russian channel NTV is producing a series - partially funded by Russia's culture ministry - that entertains a conspiracy theory suggesting the CIA were involved in sabotaging the Chernobyl reactor. (10)

With such a culture of 'alternative facts' still existing around the Chernobyl explosion, representing the truth of the events becomes more difficult, and even more important. Outside of the scripting of the show, one way a production can maintain its integrity is through visual elements: namely, production, set and costume design. In all three of those areas, Chernobyl manages to depict life in 1980s Ukraine strikingly well. Uniforms ranging from those worn by Chernobyl powerplant workers, Pripyat doctors and nurses, firefighters, and schoolchildren were painstakingly re-created from reference photos and footage from the era. Viewers who lived in the Soviet Union during the 1980s praised the series for its authentic re-creation of paraphernalia such as numberplates, school uniforms, classrooms and obscure military flags - minute details that would escape most viewers. (11)

Chernobyl production designer Luke Hull and his team went to great lengths to capture the look and feel of Ukraine, 1986, with the obvious starting point being to watch all available footage from the time and region and reproduce the details contained therein as accurately as possible. Hull's team did have a wealth of footage from the aftermath of the Chernobyl disaster, given that attempts to prevent nuclear material burning down into groundwater, quell the reactor fire and dispose of radioactive graphite on the plant's roof had all been documented on video. But Hull also scoured Ukrainian and Lithuanian markets for period props and costumes to fit out even the most minor characters and briefly seen sets, while apartment buildings found in Lithuania proved to be eerily similar to those that have since been retaken by nature in Pripyat. (12) That's not to say Chernobyl's settings weren't deliberately selected and shot to help convey story and atmosphere, however; Hull has stated in an interview that 'there had to be a sign of man destroying nature, something that captured a sense of depletion' when choosing and framing landscapes and exteriors. (13)

The voices of Chernobyl

The accuracy of historical-fiction programming lies largely in its ability to faithfully depict not just events but also the experiences of characters. If Mazin had relied solely on the official death toll from the explosion itself, in which a mere thirty-one people died, (14) the scope of the disaster would have seemed relatively minor. According to independent sources, however, it's estimated that anywhere from 4000 (15) to 93,000 (16) people have died or will die as a result of the explosion, including plant workers and first responders who were exposed to fatal amounts of radiation and died within months, and others in Ukraine and neighbouring countries who developed (or will, in future, develop) cancers as a result of lower, but no less fatal, doses of radiation.

How best, then, to accurately depict the deadly outcomes of this disaster? How best to tell the story of Chernobyl - not just of those in the immediate vicinity of the explosion, but also of the 400 miners tasked with boring under the reactor, of the 600,000 conscripted to clean up the massive exclusion zone and of the dozens of scientists who aided Legasov? What Chernobyl does particularly well is carefully select and present a digestible number of characters and perspectives that can speak more broadly to the experiences of many others.

In the accompanying Chernobyl podcast and in numerous interviews, Mazin has cited the book Voices of Chernobyl (17) by Belarusian Nobel Laureate Svetlana Alexievich as an influence on the series. Alexievich interviewed more than 500 eyewitnesses to the disaster, including citizens of Pripyat, first responders and the clean-up crew (known in English as 'liquidators'). 'What Svetlana Alexievich did there, I think, was capture an aspect of history we rarely see, which is the story of the people who you wouldn't otherwise even know existed,' said Mazin. (18)

Mazin succeeds in selecting a healthy - but not overwhelming - number of these narratives to help tell the larger narrative of the Chernobyl disaster as experienced by those affected by it. The experience of the pregnant Lyudmilla - the first character we meet after Legasov - is perhaps the most harrowing. She is a rare character who is sceptical about the downplaying of the explosion, but she is also the one who defies nurses' warnings and lets herself come into close contact with her contaminated husband. Vasily's sickening decline in health is not overwrought, but neither does Chernobyl shy away from the horrifying effects of radiation poisoning.

It's worth noting, too, that radioactive poisoning is something rarely put to screen accurately. In comic-book films, exposure to radioactivity often results in superhuman abilities, (19) and nuclear explosions in action films usually lead to immediate death or incredulous escapes. (20) Chernobyl portrays the slower, more gruesome demise of those who suffer extreme doses of radiation, using firsthand descriptions from Voices of Chernobyl to depict weeping, blackened skin and characters rendered unrecognisable. These fleeting moments are shot respectfully, the show's creators treading the fine line between depicting these effects accurately and gratuitously. For the squeamish, Legasov's description to Shcherbina of the effects might be sufficient:

The cellular damage begins to manifest, the bone marrow dies, the immune system fails, the organs and soft tissue begin to decompose, the arteries and veins spill open like sieves, to the point where you can't administer morphine for the pain - which is unimaginable. Then, three days to three weeks,you're dead.

The dehumanising effect on those conscripted to clean up the massive exclusion zone in the wake of the disaster is also cleverly told. Of the 600,000 liquidators, the series focuses on one, a young man named Pavel (Barry Keoghan), who is teamed up with Bacho (Fares Fares) - a Soviet-Afghan War veteran who is already an old hand at their particular job, which is shooting pet dogs left behind after the evacuations. They essentially share a single-episode arc, in which Pavel must become accustomed to performing this gruesome task. Though no obvious effects of radiation are portrayed in this episode, it presents some of the series' most uncomfortable moments, as Pavel and his co-workers go about their grisly business. Mazin manages to distil the experiences of the many conscripted into the 'clean-up' process in an impactful way that evokes sympathy for citizens who were made to undertake inhumane acts.

Creative licence has been taken with regard to characters, but one key aspect of the show's honest approach is that it doesn't try to hide these deviations. In the show's postscript, it's pointed out that dozens of scientists helped Legasov, and that Emily Watson's character, Ulana Khomyuk, is fictional: an amalgamation of the many scientists who, from a scripting perspective, would've been too difficult to include. Another real-life character, minister for coal Mikhail Shchadov (Michael Colgan), is shown to be a younger man, out of touch with the workers who fuel the industry he oversees; in reality, he worked on mine sites as a mechanic and as a chief engineer. (21) Some creative liberty is taken here to craft an incredible scene in which dozens of miners covered head-to-toe in soot dirty the bureaucrat's immaculate blue suit by patting his shoulder as they trudge to the buses that will take them to Chernobyl. 'Now you look like the minister of coal,' remarks one miner.

While Chernobyl's creators have highlighted their overall pursuit of authenticity, some commentators have criticised the show for its embellishments and manufactured confrontations, (22) and even for fundamentally misrepresenting the consequences of a nuclear meltdown. (23) These responses, however, perhaps say more about the broader politicisation of topics such as nuclear energy and the legacy of the USSR than any anti-nuclear bias or failure of research on the part of the show's creatives. As beholden to the truth as the creators may have set out to be, the fact remains the series is a dramatisation of historical events and does use creative licence to maximise dramatic effect in order to create engaging, impactful television.

In hindsight, it was perhaps impossible for a dramatised interpretation of an event so present in people's consciousness to stay contained within the frame, and Mazin's openness about the creative process and willingness to discuss Chernobyl's themes in relation to that process suggest that that tension may well have been anticipated. Critically considering the Chernobyl series within its broader context makes for a rewarding and thought provoking experience. But, if one cuts through all of the political discourse surrounding the series, one nonetheless finds at its centre a sense of responsibility on the part of its creative team to doing justice to what transpired and the real-life individuals involved, distilling so much into five one-hour episodes of engaging storytelling that, ultimately, respects the truth of those events.

Garry Westmore is a Melbourne-based writer and educator. He currently works in education at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image.


(1) Todd Spangler, 'HBO's Chernobyl Is Now the Top-rated TV Show on IMDb', Variety, 5 June 2019, <>, accessed 25 September 2019.

(2) Craig Mazin, in 'The Chernobyl Podcast | Part One | HBO', YouTube, 6 May 2019, <>, accessed 25 September 2019.

(3) See David Wise, 'Closing Down the KGB', The New York Times Magazine, 24 November 1991, <>, accessed 25 September 2019.

(4) Stephen King, Twitter post dated 30 May 2019, <>, accessed 25 September 2019.

(5) Dan Bongino, Twitter post dated 31 May 2019, <>, accessed 25 September 2019.

(6) Craig Mazin, Twitter post dated 31 May 2019, <>, accessed 25 September 2019.

(7) See Lee Mclntyre, 'Lies, Damn Lies and Post-truth', The Conversation, 19 November 2018, <>, accessed 25 September 2019.

(8) Glenn Kessler, Salvador Rizzo & Meg Kelly, 'President Trump Has Made More than 10,000 False or Misleading Claims', The Washington Post, 29 April 2019, <>, accessed 25 September 2019.

(9) Callum Borchers, 'Trump Falsely Claims (Again) That He Coined the Term "Fake News'", The Washington Post, 26 October 2017, <>, accessed 25 September 2019.

(10) Vladimir Kozlov, 'Russia Making Own TV Series on Chernobyl Nuclear Disaster', The Hollywood Reporter, 6 June 2019, <>, accessed 25 September 2019.

(11) See, for example, Slava Malamud, Twitter post dated 25 May 2019, <>; and Masha Gessen, 'What HBO's Chernobyl Got Right, and What It Got Terribly Wrong', The New Yorker, 4 June 2019, <>, both accessed 25 September 2019.

(12) Patrick Sisson, 'How Chernobyl's Meticulous Sets Envelop Viewers in Late Soviet Design', Curbed, 7 June 2019, <>, accessed 25 September 2019.

(13) Luke Hull, quoted in Sisson, ibid.

(14) Richard Gray, 'The True Toll of the Chernobyl Disaster', BBC Future, 26 July 2019, <>, accessed 25 September 2019.

(15) See International Atomic Energy Agency, Chernobyl: Looking Back to Go Forward, Vienna, 2008, p. 4, available at <>, accessed 25 September 2019.

(16) 'Chernobyl Death Toll Grossly Underestimated', media release, Greenpeace International, 18 April 2006, <>, accessed 25 September 2019.

(17) Svetlana Alexievich, Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster, trans. Keith Gessen, Dalkey Archive Press, Normal, IL, and London, 2005 [1997].

(18) Craig Mazin, quoted in Drew Schwartz, 'Craig Mazin's Yearslong Obsession with Making Chernobyl Terrifyingly Accurate', VICE, 4 June 2019, <>, accessed 25 September 2019.

(19) In 2003's Hulk (Ang Lee), Bruce Banner (Eric Bana) turns into the Hulk after being exposed to gamma radiation, while Miles Morales (Shameik Moore) in Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey & Rodney Rothman, 2018) gets his superpowers by being bitten by a radioactive spider.

In Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (Steven Spielberg, 2008), the titular protagonist (Harrison Ford) manages to survive a nuclear explosion by taking shelter in a lead-lined refrigerator.

(21) See [phrase omitted] 13 November 2011, <>, accessed 25 September 2019, as translated by Google Translate.

(22) See, for example, Gessen, op. cit.

(23) See, for example, Michael Shellenberger, Why HBO's Chernobyl Gets Nuclear So Wrong', Forbes, 6 June 2019, <>, accessed 25 September 2019.

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Publication:Screen Education
Geographic Code:4EXUR
Date:Dec 1, 2019
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