Thanks to his pulse and historical sense, Chernobyl has been an audiovisual success. Precisely for that reason, many have come to the step to make notice the inconsistencies or falsehoods of this fiction with respect to the events that occurred that fateful October 26, 1986, and in its later months.
But HBO was ahead of these criticisms and has provided us, along with the broadcast of their episodes, a contextualizing podcasts with Peter Sagal and Craig Mazin, the latter being the creator and scriptwriter of the series.
Program by program, the spectator is discovered what motivated Mazin to tell this tragic episode, what sources he has consulted and what elements he has included in the series. Thanks to this tool we can see first-hand what degree of truth there is in the series and in what moments it has opted for narrative licenses.
Legásov, a suicide without known mode
We began the series with the scene of a man who was apologetic, defeated and visibly ill, recording his testimony on tapes. As if it were a thriller, we followed him through the dark streets to the place where he deposited that set of tapes for a possible receiver. Minutes later the man commits suicide.
This fact that we open mouth in Chernobyl is accurate. Valeri Legásov, played by Jared Harris, is a member of the management of the Soviet Academy of Sciences and the deputy director of the Kurchatov Institute, a center for Soviet nuclear research. It was also a pillar of the block aimed at solving the Chernobyl incident.
After everything that happened in the days after the nuclear disaster and that we will see in successive episodes, he commits suicide just two years after the incident. While it is true that to add drama and a different start and surprising, the creator chose to specify the time of death, but really not known exactly.
One of the points that sustains the narrative of fiction is the supposed legacy of those autobiographical films by Legásov himself. Those tapes existed in the real world.
24 first very faithful hours
The writer tells us that he has not only used books such as ‘Voces de Chernobyl’ by journalist Svetlana Aleksievich but also various documentaries and oral and written sources.
Such is the detail that the conversation we see in the control room of the reactor moments before and after the tragic event is true. In the dialogues we see the denial of the accident that reigns in the speech of Dyatlov(played by Paul Ritter), deputy chief engineer at the nuclear power plant, and the numerous calls that occur that night.
In the production of HBO we see how during the course of that intense dawn a meeting is held to evaluate the damages. The final conclusion was to cut telephone lines and not allow anyone to enter or leave within the city limits, ruling out the possibility of evacuation. This happens on the screen, as Craig Mazin tells us in the podcast, however surreal it may seem is a tracing of what happened in reality.
Much has been said about the heroic role of firefighters in this catastrophe. In the series we can see that narration point by point through the eyes of one of the firemen, Vasily Ignatenko (Adam Nagaitis) and his wife Lyudmilla Vasily (Jessie Buckley). Upon being informed of the incident, the firefighters went to the scene of the events totally unprotected.
Mazin tells us that the testimonies of the time indicate that some of them did not even wear a jacket or protective helmet. They came with the idea of putting out a fire on the roof, and were not informed of the dangerous radioactivity of the granite that some of them ended up touching. And of course, they were not told that they would possibly be next to the reactor core.
Most of those firefighters died in the following weeks in a horrible way, and when they were transferred to the Moscow hospital their clothes were deposited in the basement. Such is its radioactivity today that still can not touch those garments, a detail that they have not wanted to leave in the air in the mini series and that we can see as a final point.
Another of the real tragedies that we can see in Chernobyl is how that same night most of the population of Pripyat, the city built next to the nuclear power plant, goes to a bridge a kilometer away from the incident to see up close the fire. What is later reported to us is that, as expected, all that population died from the inhalation of that polluted air.
It is also striking how the next day in the city is narrated. Once again, reality reigns in production and we see what happened. The population lives a normal life, with children playing in the park and people going to work, victims of misinformation. Until days later, and only by the discovery of large levels of radiation by other nuclear power plants in other nearby countries, there was no evacuation or the correct information of the danger that the inhabitants were suffering.
Rescue teams as heroic as in the series
There are more heroic facts that transpired in the wake of the Chernobyl incident. In addition to the bravery of firefighters, portrayed with very few narrative licenses, it is vitally important when the intervention of three people who have worked in that reactor is decided. All this to drain water and avoid a thermal explosion that would also involve the other three reactors and that would have destroyed half of Europe. Those three volunteers that were introduced in that radioactive watery basement really existed, and against all odds two of them are still alive.
But the human quality and the capacity for sacrifice does not cease in reality and therefore not in fiction. Another of the most moving stories is that of the group of miners that intervenes in the subsoil of the power plant to prevent the groundwater from being affected and thereby save millions of lives by sacrificing theirs. As reported by Chernobyl, many of them were exposed to radiation completely working even without clothes due to the high temperatures they had to endure.
During the course of the episodes, the cost of human lives and the destruction of nature from different sources are accurately described. That is why another of the most representative is the figure of the liquidators.
Lots of men were assigned to different brigades, and one of them was dedicated to cleaning the roof of the reactor four sweeping the graphite in strict shifts of 90 seconds, and therefore exposed to very high levels of radiation. The number of men did not stop increasing, since, in addition to this brigade, there were others destined to kill the animals that survived in the area and to reactivate the earth affected by the radiation.
All this we can see in the fourth episode of the series that moves between the tragic and aesthetically subtle, not for nothing titled “The Happiness Of All Mankind” (“The happiness of all mankind”), to bring even more rawness between the images and that slogan that adorned the city.
Legásov and his slates were never there
The trial of Victor Bryukhanov, Anatoly Dyatlov and Nikolai Fomin that we can see in episode five actually happened and it is also true that it was carried out in Chernobyl to falsely prove to the population that there was no danger. It is in this episode where the creator has taken more licenses. What we wanted to make clear is that one of the real reasons to add to the causes of the incident in the plant is the emphasis on conducting the nuclear test reactor four that the bureaucrats had planned, because with it all those mentioned above they would get a promotion.
More than elements of fiction, what we can find (and so called Craig Mazin in podcasts) are to a greater or lesser extent, narrative licenses. One of them, and that benefits the fiction as understood by its creator, is the decision not to enter the family territory of Legásov and not show his wife or children to avoid unnecessary scenes that would contribute little to the narrative.
The assembly that we named previously, where it was decided to cut external communications and quarantine the city of Pripyat, is not faithfully represented in fiction. We see how there are two characters with different ideas, characterized in an older man and a young man, a narrative trick that serves to highlight the two opinions that prevailed at that time. On the one hand to eliminate the alarmism, since for a certain sector the bad news created alarmism and they did not serve at all. On the other the slope that saw things as they happened and wanted to warn the population of the risk they suffered.
Nuclear physics Ulana Khomyuk, played by Emily Watson and one of the main characters in the series, never really existed, but it serves as a representation of the hundreds of scientists, including a large number of women who worked together with Legàsov in Chernobyl. The election of a woman as a representative in this matter is most appropriate, since in the Soviet Union the number of women belonging to the scientific or medical sector was very high.
The research carried by his character in the library to discover why the reactor exploded is, therefore, fiction. But it serves to involve the public in the secrecy and falsification that surrounded this case.
Where undoubtedly more narrative licenses have been taken is in the fifth episode, when reporting the trial. The stage is recreated to perfection, but it is noteworthy that neither Legàsov nor the politician Boris Shcherbina (Stellan Skarsgård) were in person, therefore they did not carry out those exhibitions that we see in the series talking about the case. The trial focused more on the interrogation and on the defense part. Also in the HBO series seems to have lasted a day when in fact it lasted for weeks and was more tedious than on screen.
The key moment is unleashed thanks to that presumed scientific jury that analyzed Legàsov’s testimony. As a point of narrative tension to lead to an outcome works perfectly, but, again, it is an invention.
The scientific jury is also a representation of the two currents that existed within the scientific community itself. One of them was a participant in the silence of the Soviet Union and its errors concerning the realization of certain nuclear power plants, and the other group wanted to highlight this situation so that a disaster of such magnitude would not occur again.
All this compendium of human failures and governmental secrecy that led to the Chernobyl catastrophe ** and that manifested itself in many other fields would help to dynamite the Soviet Union ** in 1991.
Sometimes fiction sacrifices the reality of a story to favor the exhibition and to help its creators to expose their underlying ideas, in this case, the human cost of the lies. That is why not all the historical episode of Chernobyl ends with the final judgment we see in the series, and months after the accident the power station was covered with a sarcophagus that was meant to last an eternity, or they communicated it, but the reality is that the few years the first cracks in its construction were sighted.
There are always multiple versions of an event, but what Chernobyl achieves is not focusing on a single point the cause of the disaster, but rather balancing the attribution of the same in a correct way. Putting at the same level the human failure, the secrecy around the possible errors in the manufacture and the innumerable lies that led to this incalculable number of victims.
If you have been fascinated by the story and want to know the full detail of certain scenes and their filming or testimonies from the actors themselves, we recommend you listen carefully to these podcasts.