Chernobyl ★★★★★

So I sat down to finally write this review on the day when it was revealed that Big Little Lies producers David E Kelley and Jean-Marc Vallée had recut Andrea Arnold's work without consulting her. Apparently Arnold was only hired because Vallée thought her directorial style was a good match for his, which is for sure solid reasoning - who hasn't watched Arnold's version of Wuthering Heights and thought "Yes, this is exactly like Dallas Buyers Club?" But it speaks to a general disregard in the television industry for directorial style. I'm not even a fan of Arnold's work, but it is clearly her own and that should be respected. Hiring independent directors for their cultural cachet then stifling all the things that make their work interesting is the sort of thing you expect from a mercenary, philistine movie studio, but this is the golden age of TV! And it's not even TV, it's HBO!

This sort of thing explains why I'm so grateful for Johan Renck, one of the few TV directors - outside the Lynch and Soderbergh level of untouchability - who seems to be allowed to express some personality in his work. His style reminds me of Denis Villeneuve in its heavy portent: all muted colours, slow dollies in, imposing establishing shots. Villeneuve, though, currently works at a blockbuster level, which makes it harder for him to make the kind of sombre, disturbing stories that match his sombre, disturbing style. Renck is working in a medium - box-set TV drama - which embraces seriousness as part of its USP, and Chernobyl is the fullest expression of this tendency to date.

That said, there is a part of Chernobyl that harks back to a much older form of quality TV drama - all those 1970s miniseries about historical tragedies, like Holocaust and Roots. Renck's style is aggressively modern - it would be very different without digital colour correction, for one thing - but Craig Mazin's screenplay is more heterodox. It allows for the barnstorming performances and sweeping emotional arcs of those earlier miniseries, and gives consistently great actors like Jared Harris and Emily Watson majestic lead roles. But it also provides an overview of a system, and a level of detail on how a nuclear power plant fails that marks this out as a post-Zodiac project, a drama based on true events that has to compete with the Netflix-fed boom in TV documentaries.

This has led to a level of criticism over factual inaccuracies that those '70s series would never have been subjected to. (I mean, Roots is now regarded as essentially fiction) There are certain scenes in Chernobyl that I wish Mazin had resisted - that helicopter crash, for one, and having a Soviet official actually drink vodka at his desk hands an easy win to those who would dismiss the whole series as anti-Russian jingoism. But so much of the criticism is just CinemaSins with a history degree. No, we don't know exactly how Legasov got his report about the plant meltdown circulated. No, this does not make it "inaccurate" to show Jared Harris making a document drop. If you think it does, you're objecting to the whole idea of making drama about historical events, and I'd rather have that debate than re-negotiate the concept of dramatic license every fucking time one of these projects gets made.

Part of the reason why I'm happy not being into modern TV is that it means Oscar season is the only time I really get embroiled in the hot-takes cycle. As soon as Chernobyl became IMDb's highest-rated TV series of all time, it was inevitable that the backlash would start, and I'd rather be free to write about the stuff I adored: the brutally abrupt opening, Mazin's remarkably coherent juggling of such a mass of characters and storylines, the unforgettably horrifying story of the Ignatenkos, Emily Watson calmly explaining that the boron drop would turn the whole plant into an atomic bomb, the nerve-shredding single take of the "bio-robots" at work. (Ding! Unforgivable inaccuracy as we have no evidence any of the workers ever tripped over, according to this article which just becomes straight-up nuclear industry propaganda at the end)

My main problem with the backlash pieces is that I simply don't recognise the show they're writing about, this crude piece of anti-Marxist agitprop that holds Zhukov responsible for all the failures of the Pripyat plant. For all the "Comrade"s and portraits of Lenin, Mazin's script is often chillingly applicable to capitalist cover-ups and system failures - and, indeed, he's considering following this up with a script about the Bhopal gas disaster, which offers plenty of opportunity for the exact same anatomisation of official callousness as this. The argument that Zhukov is made into a sole villain, too, requires you to ignore so much of the script, as well as the subtle genre shift at the end. For the bulk of the final episode, we're led to believe Chernobyl might become a liberal drama in the Capra/Sorkin mould, where one brave campaigner takes down the system. But the preceding four episodes, with their huge ensemble and systemic viewpoint, haven't supported that kind of drama, and sure enough Legasov's crusade ends in exactly the way Mr. Smith Goes to Washington doesn't.

That cinematic allusion is, I believe, deliberate. Others were carefully weeded out. Renck nixed an early effects shot of the plant explosion for looking "too Die Hard" but the final version is weirdly reminiscent of that "blue laser firing into the sky" effect that all mid-2010s blockbusters had to conclude with. It is an appropriately apocalyptic association. There was an urban myth circulating after the disaster which claimed that "Chernobyl" was Russian for "Wormwood", the falling star which the Book of Revelation identifies as a herald of the End Times. That isn't true, but looking at Renck's long shots of unprepared firefighters heading into the burning plant, it's easy to see this as a modern Inferno.

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