“Chernobyl” (2019): Wonderful
“Chernobyl”, the HBO TV show, is extraordinary. It is a comfort to find that people who know more than me agree. I was longing for the show to be good; it might well have been dreadful. In the event it was gripping, powerful and in several important respects as true as one could possibly hope in a drama.
The 1986 fire and the immediate response was above all a Russian and Soviet event, as the show says. Secrecy, pride, patriotism, courage, cleverness, deviousness and stubbornness all variously helped cause and eventually ameliorated the disaster. In 2006, the show noted, Mikhail Gorbachev wrote that its reverberations finished off the USSR. The explosion blew the lid off a political system as well as a power station’s. But it also revealed the best of Russia and even of its communism.
It is fascinating that the epidemiology and toxicology of the wider and longer term effects seem to have shown that the death toll was surprisingly low. If the show didn’t enter that controversy, one could hardly blame its makers. At least, and it is great to report it, they did not go wholesale with the campaigning NGOs’ preference for doomily enormous numbers.
Nor did the show lay out, what quite a few of us felt, that it suited all sorts of people (Ukrainian politicians, those pesky western NGOs, much of the media everywhere) to assume the worst as to the death toll.
To be fair, one or two writers (for instance Martin Cruz Smith and Piers Paul Reed) got Chernobyl pretty right early on. But to have the story on the screen for a new generation feels like a gift of considerable importance.
The great thing from a theatrical point of view is that the writer found a powerful poetic accuracy whilst hanging on to a good grasp of the evidence. I am pleased that he says that it was his great concern to do so.
Chernobyl meant a good deal to me and to some other visitors I got to know well. We kept meeting people around Chernobyl who were very impressive. I was there for a week or so in 1995 and in 2015 and loved the whole place. It is not just that I was moved, though of course I was. It seems quite wrong to see it merely as a place of tragedy or failure, to be mourned over. It is easy but not useful to see it as mythic: this is not, in my view, where man’s hubris was tested to destruction. The technology of nuclear power is not, in my view, merely Promethean. If this was a disaster, it was a disaster as war almost always is. There is greatness in the human response to these challenges.