Reviewing Chernobyl

This review is of the 2019 5-part television series on the 1986 disaster at the Chernobyl nuclear plant in Ukraine.

Overall, I think the television series makes an important contribution, because it gets many thinking about something more of us should think about. The corners it cuts and the other inherent flaws of telling such a detailed story within the time constraints and limitations of television means the story isn’t accurate enough.

The series greatest contribution is the way it has gotten people to consider and discuss Chernobyl in ways many have never done. It puts the disaster in the minds of those too young, or not yet born when it happened. Simply by raising the realities that tens-of-thousands of people eventually died from radiation poisoning, more than 16,00 miles of land was evacuated, that as many animals as could be found were killed, and that much of the area may never be inhabited again, Chernobyl illustrates the dangers of nuclear power. In a world where some argue nuclear power is a viable energy source, Chernobyl is an excellent reminder of the cost of nuclear power.

Too tell the important aspects of the story within the confines of television, Chernobyl lacks accuracy, promotes stereotypes, and is too simplistic.

The constant threats of people getting shot if they don’t obey, almost everyone drinking vodka all the time, and unqualified people were in most positions because they were part of the /Communist Party are examples of inaccuracies and stereotyping. Those things stood out to me because the story didn’t need those aspects to be interesting and informative. But the creators couldn’t pass up the opportunity to feed Western audiences reminders of how they should view the Soviet Union.

If Hollywood dared to make a movie about Hurricane Katrina, I can’t imagine it engaging in an honest look at the racism behind governmental policy–never mind engaging in stereotypes of the decision makers.

I’m glad they acknowledge Khomyuk is fictional; I kept thinking she was too good to be real. The modern trope of a woman pointing out the flaws of lots of bad men was also hard to miss. Still, I recognize the need to streamline the telling of events that were far too complicated for a 5-part series.

The courtroom seen where Legasov tells what the series is selling as the truth was also way too cute. I can’t imagine a scenario where someone would have gotten up in a Soviet courtroom and accused the state’s inaction, incompetence, and cheapness of playing a role in a terrible disaster. Also, the Legasov story seems too simple. A few really terrible people decided to hide important information. Then, a different group of terrible people decided promotions were more important than limiting the chance of a disaster. Lastly, a particularly awful person ignored everyone and forced them to do things that were terribly dangerous.

The reality is most likely far more complicated. The actual causes for the disaster are most likely numerous, go back years, and involve a detailed look at the governmental systems involved. This is why I prefer books to movies.

Chernobyl has its issues. But it got people, like me, thinking about nuclear power in ways we don’t do enough. For that reason, Chernobyl is an important bit of culture. Now, I’m going to find a book or two to get closer to the truth.

There is one final point that must be made: the heroism of those who knowingly subjected themselves to deadly levels of radiation to prevent a much wider catastrophe is truly worth considering. It’s hard to know how we would individually act if confronted with such awful choices. But we do know that enough of us always, eventually step up and sacrifice themselves for the greater good.

There will always be those who kill and injure for their selfish reasons. More importantly, there will always be more people who give of themselves because humanity needs them to do so.

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