‘Chernobyl’: Raining Ash in My Borscht

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Brought to you by the excellent film-makers at HBO, Chernobyl tells the story of one of the worst man-made disasters in history, the explosion of the U.S.S.R. nuclear power plant Chernobyl, and its lasting consequences.

The show opens with the dictation of honest memoirs about what truly happened at Chernobyl from the main man who would have cause to know, Russian scientist Valery Legasov (Jared Harris), and his absolute need for secrecy to keep these tapes out of the hands of the KGB.

After ensuring his dubious legacy, Legasov determinedly decides his own fate, to not die in the black cellars of a KGB gulag, or shedding skin and hair and wasting away from the results of seeing Chernobyl up close and personal, but rather the last gasp at the end of a rope that he himself tied. Despite his numerous faults and moments of cowardice, the show portrays Legasov as a man of sheer determination to get his point across when the situation warrants it.

Soviet politician Boris Shcherbina (Stellan Skarsgard) is elected by others to head the cleanup of the Chernobyl disaster, and from the beginning, he and Legasov clash. The propaganda machine is in full swing and Boris has been seriously misinformed as to the extent of the damage of the nuclear power plant and the subsequent necessary cleanups involved for literally years afterward. As Legasov stubbornly stays the course in what is absolutely needed to prevent further destruction, he and Boris begin to develop a mutual if grudging respect for each-other.

Though the explosion of the nuclear power plant already happened, other catastrophes are brewing inside the shell of Chernobyl, even while rescue workers and firefighters attempt to save anyone left. The protective clothing the firefighters wore while sloshing through the power plant is soaked in radioactivity and tossed into an empty room of the plant where it remains too toxic to touch, even to this very day. The poor scientists and regulators of the night shift-change caught in the meltdown, those not immediately immolated in the initial carnage, are taken to hospice where they themselves have a private meltdown, of their own poor bodies.

A few hundred miles away, nuclear scientist Ulana Khomyuk (Emily Watson) gets wind of the catastrophe of Chernobyl and surges determinedly forward to find out the truth behind what led to the original explosion. Despite strenuous objections to her gender, mental acuity and political savvy, and really any involvement at all, Khomyuk determinedly pushes herself into harms way repeatedly, to get to the buried, sometimes literally, truth. Even armed with the terrible reality behind the Chernobyl explosion doesn’t prevent Khomyuk from getting hounded by the KGB, but the shadowy Russian equivalent of the CIA won’t stop her from getting the facts to Boris and Legasov for dissemination.

The ending credit tie-ups that reveal the real legacy of what happened to these key players after Chernobyl dropped a massive surprise for the character of Khomyuk – she isn’t actually a real person, but rather an amalgamated role for all the lesser people – scientists, mathematicians, laborers, many of whom were women – who put their whole heart and mind into solving the disaster of Chernobyl and its after-effects, but never received any recognition for it.

Fraught with human foibles and arrogance, yet balanced on the other end with determination and hope in the face of increasing adversity and communist red tape, ‘Chernobyl’ gives us fascinating new insights into a historical disaster, serving as a clear warning to never dare such mistakes again.