Dueling Chernobyls

Which portrayed the disaster better? HBO, or a homegrown Russian film?

September 24th marked the stateside release of the Russian disaster movie Chernobyl 1986. English language audiences mostly still think of the HBO TV series Chernobyl as the gold standard for depicting the nuclear power plant explosion, despite mainstream Russian audiences not seeing that particular drama with same relevance. Informal IMDb reviews of Chernobyl have been especially biting as to Chernobyl 1986’s perceived lack of artistic merit. And with stateside distribution of foreign movies being what it is, my review is likely to be one of only a handful of more formal takes on the subject.

Which is disappointing, because Chernobyl 1986 is quite stereotype-crushing when it comes to the misery of living under the Soviet Union. The movie is far from a propaganda piece, despite nostalgia being at an all-time high for Soviet Communism. Half of all Russians think life was better back then than it is now under Putin, and they made a point of voting for the communists in Russia’s recent elections.

Yet party officials in Chernobyl 1986 run the gamut from passively accepting fat jokes to offering bribes for consumer goods to making threats as necessary in the direct face of crisis. There’s also unmistakable irony in the frequent references to the greater goals of the Soviet state. Such moments coming off the same way a corporate employee might make reference to the official company mission statement.

But what’s most remarkable about Chernobyl 1986 is just how bright it is. Like literally, for the whole first half hour, well before there’s even any hint of a nuclear plant explosion, the movie just treats us to wide, expansive daytime shots of Soviet citizens on their days off. They dress in bright clothing, listen to cheery music, and in one noteworthy sequence, even show an interest in foreign films. Note that in this case a “foreign film” means like Jean-Claude Van Damme, or Sylvester Stallone, or Jackie Chan. The denizens of this eighties era period piece evidently have more understanding of the pop culture world outside Soviet dominion than your typical modern day American does of their own,

Chernobyl 1986 also makes the interesting choice of having our hero be a not particularly sympathetic accidental deadbeat dad. And when he does get involved with the disaster, the value of his contributions are…questionable. I couldn’t even figure out what was going on for the entire last half-hour, comprised of interminable and confusing underwater shots. They weren’t as technically impressive as the people who made the movie thought, and the movie is already entirely too long at two hours and fifteen minutes. So as far as the whole “is this movie worth watching” goes, I’d give high marks for backdrop and characterization but low marks on the climax having anything approaching an actual point.

But the HBO Chernobyl did have a point, and not an especially subtle one. The grim, dark lighting makes it clear that nuclear explosion or not, the Soviet Union was a terrible place. And the culprit? Communism, of course. Over time the miniseries shows the heroes to be scientists, who know the right science. Administrators, who know nothing of science, favor antiscientific explanations.

You can already see irony of understanding science being presented as a capitalism/communism divide in 2019, looking at the present day. Just take a look at the wildly differing responses of the United States and China to COVID-19, which made its premiere only a few months after the HBO series. Ironically, this fetishistic view of science might have something to do with that. The HBO Chernobyl series and Chernobyl 1986 both make a point of noting that it shouldn’t actually be physically possible for a nuclear power plant to explode. Chernobyl was quite literally an unprecedented situation where no one was sure what exactly was going on.

Both movies are also probably accidentally alarmist about nuclear power. Funnily enough Chernobyl 1986 has the most extreme imagery, with its birds dropping dead from the sky straight into traffic as opposed to more passively on sidewalks. But both versions give immediate death all the focus, when in actuality Chernobyl radiation was always a long-term risk. Chernobyl 1986 has the better excuse for showing hospitals pushed to the brink with injured people, though, as its lead character is a first responder. The HBO Chernobyl series, despite its more allegedly methodological approach, showcases hospitals mainly to emphasize managerial incompetence.

That methodological approach gives the HBO Chernobyl series a distinct impression of truthiness, despite the series having long been known to be riddled with factual errors, almost all of which were unsubtly designed to make the Soviet government look bad. Chernobyl 1986, despite having a nearly identical perspective of the event, is superficially less trustworthy as a source of information because it’s willing to depict characters as straightforwardly heroic and responding to circumstance. The HBO Chernobyl series couldn’t even lionize miners who worked to prevent a possible radiation infection of groundwater without having a Soviet official pointlessly threaten to shoot them.

By not attempting to provide broader insights, Chernobyl 1986 is actually a much better depiction of the Chernobyl tragedy than the HBO Chernobyl series, just because it also makes a serious effort to work as a period piece and demonstrate that Russians do indeed smile every once in a while. For all its flaws, Chernobyl 1986 still manages to make the HBO Chernobyl series look like cultural appropriation by comparison. It’s a pity some of the more technical aspects are so indefensible, because Chernobyl 1986 is a genuinely interesting movie and you’ll probably learn more about Russia, past or present, by watching it rather than the HBO version.

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William Schwartz

William Schwartz is a reporter and film critic based in Seoul, South Korea. He writes primarily for HanCinema, the world's largest and most popular English language database for South Korean television dramas and films.

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