HBO’s “Chernobyl” has been widely praised, widely criticized too. In this article, Cultural Hater looks into the grounds for criticism of the series, as well as its praiseworthy craftsmanship.
In this article, I deep-dive into:
- Criticism of “Chernobyl”
- Real commentary from people who witnessed the tragedy
- Why “Chernobyl” is, despite its flaws, an example of stunning television
Why people criticize HBO’s “Chernobyl”?
Despite a solid 96% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, there is a bunch of adamant critics of “Chernobyl”. Most of them focus on the distortions in the series from what actually happened in the aftermath of the explosion.
A particularly lamentable piece was published by The New Yorker (I don’t want to promote this particular piece, hence no link. Search for it if you have to). The author of the article listed numerous “what’s wrong with Chernobyl” points, but for the sake of argument, I’ll move to the most igniting examples.
One issue is the character of Ulyana Khomyuk (played by Emily Watson) – a Belarussian physicist whom the audience meets in the second episode of the series.
Khomyuk arrives at Chernobyl to help the leading nuclear physicist Valery Legasov (played by Jared Harris) tame the mayhem. As the series’ creator Craig Mazin explained, Khomyuk is a fictional character, whose purpose was to embody the entire team of specialists who worked on the Chernobyl case.
The argument in The New Yorker is that Khomyuk is a kind of know-it-all character, arriving as a savior to Chernobyl, and hellbent to unravel the mystery of why the reactor exploded in the first place – “She is a truth-knower: the first time we see her, she is already figuring out that something has gone terribly wrong, and she is grasping it terribly fast, unlike the dense men at the actual scene of the disaster, who seem to need hours to take it in.”, writes Masha Gessen.
That is, undoubtedly, true.
As you could say in the League of Legends jargon, Khomyuk is completely OP (stands for overpowered). She’s brighter than all the men present at the scene, truth-seeking and risking her life and career. She confronts the highest authorities with confidence that’s just unrealistic.
But here comes the other truth about “Chernobyl”. It is not a documentary – it is, by all means, a fictionalized version of real events.
Mazin made a bold move to encapsulate all the brains cracking down the Chernobyl case in one, female character. But if the series strived for naming all of the team members and people who sacrificed their health and life, it would span over three stretched seasons. Such a massive shortcut, but one that allows Mazin to give enough context – the Soviets called the shots, moved its most talented scientists to put down the fire, but nobody on this planet could easily find a solution for this yet unprecedented problem. And it is easier to bond with just two characters than a conglomerate of scientists – it’s just a purely storytelling-oriented decision.
Then there is the second argument, which is the portrayal of the Soviet society based on the people involved in Chernobyl. Legasov is often called as too cocky, used to embroider the story in a way that steers away from facts. Arguably some of the discussions between him and Scherbina (played by Stellan Skarsgård) wouldn’t take place. The hierarchy was incredibly important in the Soviet Union, and disrespecting it was an affront easily punished by lifetime gulag. But again, Legasov is a tool to point to the scale of Chernobyl’s disaster. His role had to be dramatized to emphasize the role of the government and its fatal errors.
In an interview conducted by BBC Ukrainian, Oleksiy Breus made it clear what was true and what’s been clearly dramatized or changed in “Chernobyl”. And mind this man’s words, because he arrived at Chernobyl just hours after the explosion.
Breus claims that Legasov didn’t play such a pivotal role. He did, in fact, served as a specialist figure and was called in early after the explosion. However, it’s difficult to call him the main brain of the operation. On the other hand, Legasov was ostracized by the government and there had to be reasons for that too. In his tapes (mentioned in the very first scene of the series), Valery Legasov blamed Chernobyl engineers, as well as the authorities for vastly mishandling the crisis. This proves he had to quite knowledgeable about the entire situation.
Interestingly, general Nikolai Tarakanov also got very close to the figures mentioned in “Chernobyl” (he was a friend of Scherbina) – claimed that Legasov wasn’t such and ardent critic of the Soviet government. In an interview with rt.com, Takanov claimed that citizens of Pripryat were kept in the dark for days (and Legasov wasn’t so keen on evacuating them as portrayed in the series). According to the general, it took approximately 36 hours to issue an official statement and nobody had any issue with it at the beginning.
Finally, some criticize the way Mazin shows the radiation sickness. In the series, two plant workers – Akimov and Toptunov – look terrifying when Ulyana Khomyuk visits them in Moscow Hospital nr 6. Their skin’s partially pale white, with dark and livid slabs, blood seeping through multiple wounds. This horror is massively criticized by dr Gale – a scientist and medical doctor, who was brought to Moscow to treat post-radiation sickness. In relation to the pregnant wife of one of the firefighters who put out the fire in Chernobyl, Gale wrote that “there is the dangerous representation that, because one of the victims was radioactive, his pregnant wife endangered her unborn child by entering his hospital room”. He also mentioned that “the effects are portrayed as something horrendous, unimaginable. This is inaccurate.”
However, the same person described the same events back in 1986.
And his words were slightly different. As written in an article published a few weeks after the explosion in New York Times – “Even the resources of physicians and scientists from 15 nations, which were quickly made available to the Chernobyl victims, were not enough.” And here’s a part of the same article that explains the situation from Mr. Gale’s own eyes, but back in 1986.
“Dr. Gale is used to seeing people who have received relatively high doses of controlled radiation. A large dose to destroy malignant bone marrow is part of a bone marrow transplant, an operation Dr. Gale has performed hundreds of times while treating patients with leukemia. The only visible signs of such exposure are a gradual loss of hair and some darkening of the skin.
But there was nothing controlled about the radiation these patients had received. They had radiation burns that had peeled away huge portions of their skin, and other burns from the fire in the plant that reached 5,000 degrees Centigrade – hot enough to melt metal.
Many of the patients had inhaled radioactive gases. Others had blistering sores where radioactive particles had touched their skin. Some patients’ mouths had many herpes-related cold sores, a byproduct of radiation (which is why severe sunburn brings them out in millions of beachgoers).
All this was just the visible damage. What could not be seen was the amount of life-threatening radiation they had absorbed.”
Chernobyl pays tribute to people whose story was so far unknown
Considering all of these resources and articles, one could note that there are discrepancies between the first-hand relations. That’s what made Chernobyl such a terrifying event – people weren’t aware of its scale, vastly due to the Soviet government being more interested in containing the confidential information and keeping its international political position.
One has to remember that HBO’s “Chernobyl” isn’t a documentary series. It doesn’t aim at presenting the chain reaction and naming every person responsible for the explosion or included in the rescue mission. It aims at making a point about the importance of telling the truth about the real dangers stemming from tragedies like Chernobyl.
But even after all these years, we still have a problem with it worldwide. Just look at the BP oil spill in the Mexican Gulf or the Fukujima explosion to see that the consequences aren’t so openly discussed.
Why are there so many people who appreciate HBO’s “Chernobyl” then?
The series has been praised almost unanimously, and Cultural Hater is pretty much on board with that hype train.
Here’s five reasons that explain why HBO’s “Chernobyl” will go as 2019’s pinnacle and a masterpiece we will remember for a long, long time – even despite its distortions from facts.
1. The series shows the weight of the events at Chernobyl
Chernobyl, as the HBO show unravels, has been one of the most important events in the Cold War era, and one of the tremors that shook the grounds of the Soviet Union. The explosion took the lives of thousands of people (as a result of post-radiation illnesses like cancer, leukemia etc.), contaminated thousands of square meters, and led to a massive toxic cloud that spanned across half of Europe, which intoxicated people across borders, as well as caused political tension between European countries and the Soviet Union.
For years, Chernobyl’s explosion was to be kept somehow secret. The series, created by Craig Mazin, captures that lie and under-the-rag treatment. By peaking into large cabinets and comrades’ meetings, the Soviet government feared a significant loss of power in the international arena, and a sacrifice of their own people was weighted less. People died, suffered and lost their homes, because the governing party needed to remain powerful in the eyes of the U.S. and Europe.
2. It’s a work of finest craftsmanship
One thing is telling a devastating story like “Chernobyl”, but the second thing is making it work visually.
“Chernobyl” is flawlessly executed. Without the slightest moment of hesitation, it is directed as a drama that pays tribute in the most emotionally-wrecking way possible.The characters are introduced with perfect timing and structure – there is not a single moment when you get confused by an abundance of characters and facts. Instead of commingling too many threads and details,”Chernobyl” remains sharp – it’s supposed to commemorate those who bravely lost their lives in the radiant explosion.
The eerie soundtrack by an Icelandic female composer Hildur Guðnadóttir fits the gruesome images outstandingly too. With the tremendous sound design, the ominous score undermines the tragedy with subtleness and echoes the hollow helplessness of those, who were tasked with stopping the fire. And what’s even more mindblowing is that parts of this score used records from an actual nuclear plant.
These otherworldly sounds work perfect with the green-filtered, depressingly dim and grim cinematography of Jakob Ihre.
3. “Chernobyl” is haunting, but never crosses a certain border
Chernobyl and its aftermath has surely served many horrors. The post-radiation births resulted in deformed children, many people died a slow death of cancer too.
Even when “Chernobyl” uses rather graphic imagery, it never crosses a certain line. There is an utmost respect to those who died fighting against the deadly fumes. The creators of HBO’s “Chernobyl” shock only when needed – it’s means to strengthen fear or build the dreadful atmosphere. However, it’s never meant to be scary as in a horror movie.
4. HBO’s “Chernobyl” makes a strong case about bureaucracy
The Soviet Union was one of the most corrupt states in the history of mankind. Frauds, jobs for the boys, abuse of power were all the daily bread.
As the series unravels the events right after the reactor explodes, one thing becomes crystal clear early on – although a tragedy couldn’t be avoided, the calamity that followed could have been massively reduced. The size of the Chernobyl catastrophe should be pinned to all those people who managed the situation in its first deciding hours. From engineer Dyatlov to minister Scherbina and other middle men, the tragedy grew in size significantly due to their mismanagement.
5. But it also conveys an important message concerning our destructive nature
Governments lie is some sort of mantra we all live by.
In the shade of today’s discussion about global warming, marine pollution, and deterioration of all the eco-systems, “Chernobyl” comes as a harsh reminder that timing is key. While we discuss whether plastic should be abandoned, the particles that kill the Earth fly around.
People, who died in the aftermath of “Chernobyl”, sacrificed for the greater good, but if we all will still refuse to acknowledge it is time to act, even such great sacrifices might not suffice to turn the tides.
Thanks for reading. I strongly encourage you to check out some other articles about HBO’s “Chernobyl”. And don’t forget to follow me on Facebook!