Chernobyl Shows the Human Cost of Heroism


HBO’s Chernobyl is not subtle about its message. The final words of the mini-series are the same as the show’s tagline: “What is the cost of lies?” Throughout the series, which depicts the aftermath of the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl Power Plant in the Ukrainian S.S.R. in 1986, creator and writer Craig Mazin poses the answer to that question as the very disaster itself. 

As the series chronicles, the Chernobyl disaster was the direct result of nuclear engineers failing to follow regulations during a reactor test. The engineers did not follow the regulations because their supervisor pressured them to ignore them. The supervisor did this because his superiors pressured him to deliver a test that they had failed to complete before the power plant opened, despite claiming the opposite to their authorities. Furthermore, the actual explosion of the reactor was the result of a fault in the RBMK reactor itself, which party officials refused to acknowledge because they did not want to admit Soviet technology had faults. The miniseries is a convincing demonstration of how governmental lies have consequences, and when those lies are what fuel a political machine, the consequences can be world-altering and even apocalyptic.

Chernobyl demonstrates this in a remarkably clear manner, starting with the immediate response to a fire in Reactor 4 of the Chernobyl Power Plant on April 26, 1986 and leading all the way to a courtroom over a year later where party secrets are revealed and lives are effectively ended. The visual style and pacing reflects this clarity. It shows cause and effect, whether scientific or political, over and over again until it has closed the chapter on the Soviet response to the disaster and sufficiently made its point. It’s an intriguing blend of disaster movie and procedural. Horror and destruction is often front and centre, but unlike in so many disaster stories, the focus on the response to the disaster introduces an investigative element that allows for clear explanations of what is happening in the aftermath. There is terror, to be sure, especially in the first episode, but the response is also showcased in painstaking detail. There’s even a bit of courtroom drama thrown in to make the show’s points heard.

The central characters are nuclear scientist Valery Legasov (Jared Harris), party minister Boris Shcherbina (Stellan Skarsgard), and Ulana Khomyuk (Emily Watson), who is a composite character meant to represent the various scientists that helped Legasov and Shcherbina mitigate the disaster. These characters react to the disaster with admirable efficiency. They often vocalize Mazin’s own themes, which are heavy-handed, but the show’s blunt manner of storytelling is a strength, so it’s understandable that the political messages would be similarly blunt.

But for all of the show’s criticism of government secrets in general and the Soviet Union in particular, HBO’s Chernobyl is most effective when showing the human cost of heroism. The party officials, save Shcherbina, are not heroic. They are self-serving and often ignorant. Even Mikhail Gorbachev (David Dencik), who has become something of a secular saint in the liberal media, is shown to be a mere bureaucrat trying to erase the appearance of party fault. But the individuals who work to prevent further tragedy are not such manipulators. They are portrayed as genuine heroes.

The firefighters from Pripyat who initially respond to the fire in Reactor 4 do not hesitate to climb the burning power plant and attempt to put out the flames, even though they’re not aware the ground they’re walking on is fatally radioactive. At the end of the second and beginning of the third episode, three power plant workers volunteer to enter the basement of the plant to drain the water that has pooled and threatens to explode in a deadly steam explosion. They are told that the mission will likely kill them, but that they’ll be saving not only the others at the plant but everyone in the surrounding vicinity of Chernobyl. They volunteer and successfully drain the water. According to reports, they didn’t even die in the immediate aftermath; two of the men are still alive today.

Chernobyl shows this kind of heroism throughout the series, in contrast to all the shadowy evasion and manipulation by the party. We see miners agree to dig trenches beneath the power plant in order to make a safety barrier between the plant radiation and groundwater below. They even strip down to nothing in order to withstand the heat, working ungodly hours and at great speed to ensure the safety of Kyiv. In perhaps the most stunning sequence in the miniseries, we watch as soldiers head to the rooftop of Reactor 4 to clear the graphite debris. They only have 60 seconds to clear as much debris as they can before being relieved by other soldiers. The scene consists of long takes and wide frames that slow time to a crawl. Director Johan Renck makes a point of tracking up the staircase leading to the roof to show the unbroken line of soldiers waiting to subject themselves to fatal radiation and do their part to avert further disaster.

In that same episode, we follow three soldiers assigned to kill all the pets left in Pripyat and the surrounding farmsteads. The animals are too radioactive to keep alive, lest they escape the Exclusionary Zone and contaminate other areas with dangerous radiation. The new soldier played by Barry Keoghan of Dunkirk fame is not cut out for the work, but it needs to be done. When he stumbles upon a new litter of puppies, he can’t bring himself to carry out his mission and his older comrade does the job for him, sparing him the pain of killing such innocent new life. It’s a harrowing sequence, but it’s not the end for this soldier. Later, we see him working with an increased detachment as he shoots dogs and dumps them into mass graves to be covered in concrete.

All of these individuals make sacrifices throughout the series. Some men, like the firefighters, die because of doing their duty. Others, like the soldiers on the rooftop and administrators like Shcherbina, died slow deaths of cancer years down the line. And others like Keoghan’s recruit suffer profound emotional trauma at having to do the dirty work of mitigating disaster. The main thematic thrust of Chernobyl may be that governmental lies are evil, but it also celebrates the heroism of ordinary people and collectives of individuals who do the right thing. 

For all the condemnation of the Soviet Union as a party machine, the show also subtly praises the fortitude and duty of the ordinary Soviet citizen. The state forces many of them into action, such as the firefighters and Legasov himself, but others like the men who volunteer to drain the water do it for purely selfless reasons. These men, whether volunteering or compelled into service, do their utmost to fulfill their mission and save others. It seems that in criticizing the abuses of the Soviet state, Chernobyl also manages to praise the patriotism that Sovietism instilled in normal people. Would such selflessness be possible on such a mass scale in other, more individualistic nations? I’m unsure, and I don’t think the show is nearly as conclusive about this point as some critics assume it is.

Thus, Chernobyl becomes a showcase of heroism, and the human cost of such heroism. All these characters sacrifice themselves. They are all shown to be good people in the end. They are also tools of the state, which uses them for sacrifice, but then does not honour their sacrifice by doing the right thing. That’s likely the greatest indictment of the Soviet Union in Chernobyl: not that it operates through falsehood and secrecy (like all world powers do) but that it abuses the faith in its very collective. It is meant to be a governmental system that favours the working class, but its structural elitism leads to the suffering and death of that same working class. Thus, the show’s criticisms of Communism are about Sovietism specifically, not Communism in general, as some (mostly right-wing) critics read them as. Furthermore, it implicitly argues that a greater fidelity to the proletariat, a greater concern for the working class, would’ve prevented the disaster from happening in the first place.

At times, the show dabbles with exploring the guilt of the central heroes, but such equivocation is quickly shown to be misdirection. For instance, in one of the final scenes, KGB head Viktor Charkov (Alan Williams) intimidates Legasov in a holding cell, telling him that he lied for the state in a conference on the disaster in Vienna and had manipulated the party apparatus to favour himself in the past. He says that Legasov is as guilty as the rest of them, but the entire show has shown this is patently not true. The show begins with Legasov confessing all that has happened and then hanging himself, both avoiding the slow death of cancer caused by radiation and forcing the party’s hand when it comes to nuclear secrets. He is a martyr for the truth and has stepped up when his nation needed him.

He suffers for doing the right thing. His name is discredited by the party. He is swept into the shadows. He eventually dies. Others die too, thousands and perhaps tens of thousands of them due to radiation (estimates range from 4,000 fatalities to as many as 200,000). All these people are tools of the machine of power, but they are heroes nonetheless. In a show that is so dire and so bluntly distrustful of the state, it’s remarkably hopeful about ordinary people. It’s critical of the state as a structural organism, but believes wholeheartedly in the power of individuals united in a cause and working towards the betterment of others, which ironically, is what the state ought to be. Thus, even though Chernobyl operates mostly as a disaster epic, and even a horror film, at its heart it’s a heroic tragedy.

Chernobyl (HBO/Sky, 2019)

Series created and written by Craig Mazin; directed by Johan Renck; starring Jared Harris, Stellan Skarsgard, Emily Watson, Paul Ritter, Jessie Buckley, Adam Nagaitis, Con O’Neill, Adrian Rawlins, Sam Troughton, Robert Emms, David Dencik, Mark Lewis Jones, Alan Williams, Alex Ferns, Ralph Ineson, Barry Keoghan, Fares Fares, Michael McElhatton.