Audiences today can’t get enough of history, especially history presented as a podcast or a prestige television series. Best of all is the historical prestige television series accompanied by its own podcast, currently exemplified by Chernobyl, HBO’s five-episode dramatization of the events leading up to and the aftermath of the titular Soviet nuclear disaster. “The material culture of the Soviet Union is reproduced with an accuracy that has never before been seen in Western television or film — or, for that matter, in Russian television or film,” The New Yorker‘s Masha Gessen writes of the show. “Soviet-born Americans — and, indeed, Soviet-born Russians — have been tweeting and blogging in awe at the uncanny precision with which the physical surroundings of Soviet people have been reproduced.”
But along with all the praise for the accuracy on Chernobyl‘s surface has come criticism of its deeper conception of the time and place it takes as its setting: “its failure to accurately portray Soviet relationships of power,” as Gessen puts it, or to acknowledge that “resignation was the defining condition of Soviet life. But resignation is a depressing and untelegenic spectacle. So the creators of Chernobyl imagine confrontation where confrontation was unthinkable.”
Among the chilling truths of the real story of the Chernobyl disaster is how many people involved knew beforehand what could, and probably would, go wrong with the reactor that exploded on April 26, 1986. But Chernobyl, adhering to “the outlines of a disaster movie,” instead pits a lone truth-teller against a set of self-serving, malevolent higher-ups.
Chernobyl creator and writer Craig Mazin is not unaware of this, as anyone who has listened to the miniseries’ companion podcast knows. On each episode, Mazin discusses (with Peter Sagal from Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me!, incidentally) the complications of bringing such a complex event, and one that involved so many people, to the screen three decades later, and the inherent tradeoffs involved between historical faithfulness and artistic license. The video essay from Thomas Flight above combines clips from the Chernobyl podcast with not just clips from Chernobyl itself but the real-life source footage that inspired the show. The six-minute viewing experience showcases the often-astonishing recreations Chernobyl accomplishes even as it casts doubt on the possibility of ever truly recreating history on the screen. But watching creators take on that increasingly daunting challenge is precisely what today’s audiences can’t get enough of.
A Haunting Drone’s-Eye View of Chernobyl
200 Haunting Videos of U.S. Nuclear Tests Now Declassified and Put Online
A is for Atom: Vintage PR Film for Nuclear Energy
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.
“Resignation was the defining condition of Soviet life.”…Gessen. That I can believe. Authoritarian governments demand that their subjects never object to their fate. HBO has done some great things, but I can’t imagine them being able to get into the Soviet psyche. Would be like them doing something with the Chinese thought processes. They would never get it right. I don’t see these HBO productions until well after they come out so I will withhold judgment, but Gessen’s comment fits my generally pessimistic view of the historical accuracy of dramatic productions.
Then again, maybe it is just that he has touched on my own worldview, one of resignation of a human world determined to destroy itself along with all life. Maybe I actually “get it”. We have a whole lot more events much worse than Chernobyl coming and everyone misses the point, that the lesson of this disaster is about humanity, not nuclear reactors, and certainly not about a particular authoritarian government.