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I don’t like it when my dad goes on business trips–but what I do like is when he comes home and tells us about all the cool things he watched on his flights! First he came home singing the praises of the Tolkien biopic, which I reviewed here–and then he returned waxing eloquent about Chernobyl*, which, I will admit, has become my new obsession.
This stunning 5-part HBO miniseries (and the highest-rated TV show on the Internet Movie Database) tells the story of the worst nuclear disaster in human history. On April 26, 1986, one of the reactors at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in the Ukraine exploded; the radiation released from the explosion was 400 times stronger than the radiation released by the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945 (yes, you read that correctly), and the fallout spread over a much larger area.
The Ukraine, of course, was part of the repressive but faltering Soviet Union. Already embroiled in the Arms Race, the Soviet State couldn’t really afford such an emergency…or an embarrassment. For days they tried to keep a tight lid on what had happened. They didn’t even let the people of Pripyat, the nearest town, know what was really going on. The townspeople went about their lives, pretty much unaware that they were being quickly or slowly poisoned, depending on how close they were to the plant…
Until a laboratory in Sweden picked up outrageous radiation levels. Horror spread through Europe like wildfire, and the Soviets had to admit to the world and their own people that they had a problem. Or did they? Did they admit to everything? How many lies were told about what really happened at Chernobyl?
This is the question Chernobyl* poses. As we follow the three main characters–scientist Valery Legasov (Jared Harris), bureaucrat Boris Shcherbina (Stellan Skarsgård), and physicist Ulana Khomyuk (a composite character played by the indomitable Emily Watson)–we quickly realize that they are caught in a web of deception, ignorance, and intrigue.
The State can’t afford mass panic…so it lies to its own people about the danger. The meltdown must be stopped before it causes another explosion or contaminates the water table, so the State throws everything into the attempt…including its own people. The State can’t let the West know that it’s been dealt a mortal blow…so, again, it lies to the world.
And yet if Chernobyl paints an infuriating picture of the Soviet Union (as well it should!), it also paints a heroic picture of the ordinary people who fought their own war against nuclear catastrophe. Ludmilla Ignatenko stops at nothing to be with her firefighter husband, even though he’s dying of Acute Radiation Sickness (and possibly irradiating her and their unborn baby). The three “Chernobyl Divers” risk their lives to drain the water tanks beneath the reactor, preventing a second explosion that could’ve left the Ukraine and Belarus uninhabitable for centuries. An army of brusque coal miners dig tunnels beneath the reactor, knowing full well they’ll probably die from inhaling radioactive dust–while a host of ill-equipped doctors and nurses do what they can for the sick and injured workers.
Last but not least, there is Legasov, quietly wrestling with his own fear and guilt; Shcherbina, a self-proclaimed “career party man,” rapidly losing his faith in the State; and Khomyuk, boldly urging her unlikely allies to tell the truth about the negligence that caused the disaster in the first place.
“When the truth offends, we lie and lie until we can no longer remember it is even there, but it is still there,” Legasov tells a packed courtroom in the climactic final episode. “Every lie we tell incurs a debt to the truth. Sooner or later, that debt is paid. That is how an RBMK reactor core explodes: lies.”
Chernobyl* isn’t for the faint of heart. There’s strong language, one scene with (non-sexual) nudity, and several gruesome depictions of Acute Radiation Sickness. Yet it keeps you on the edge of your seat the whole time. How the heck are they going to stop this fire–or prevent that thermal explosion–or evacuate a whole city–or get their machines to work in this radioactive environment? Oh, and tell me: how does an RBMK reactor explode?! (I finally got so desperate that I spoiled it for myself and went to Wikipedia. I’ve filed my new knowledge under “Things I Didn’t Know I Needed to Know Until Now.”)
But the most poignant thing about Chernobyl is that it leaves you caring so deeply about the characters–especially Legasov, Khomyuk, and Ludmilla. At the end of each episode, you just want them all to be okay. While the show doesn’t sugarcoat the cruelty of the Soviet government, it does humanize its citizens–something that, I believe, is badly needed when it comes to any story about Russia.
In the same way that The Book Thief and The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society humanize ordinary Germans during World War II, Chernobyl* brings you to a place of true sympathy and compassion for the small and the brave of the Soviet Union at the end of the Cold War. There are many reasons why I’d recommend it–at least to older viewers–but that one is near the top of the list.
Disclosure: This post contains Amazon Affiliate Links, meaning that I receive a small commission if you make any purchase through my links marked clearly with an asterisk, at no cost to you. Please read my full disclosure for more info.I heard someone say recently that for J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings* was a happy accident. For decades Tolkien had been working on the mythopoeic saga of a world war fought over three powerful jewels–but when he submitted a draft after the success of The Hobbit*, his publishers rejected it as being “too Celtic.” As a result, Tolkien began working on “a new story about Hobbits,” which became The Lord of the Rings. But that wasn’t the end of his mythic darling. Tolkien, perfectionist that he was, never finished it in his lifetime, but his son Christopher did. Or, at least, he compiled his father’s writings into a majestic narrative, one that adds even greater depth to his more popular works: The Silmarillion*. My copy of The Silmarillion is fifteen years old this year, and it’s looking its age. It had been years since I last read it, but back in October I picked it up, inspired by several podcasts I’d listened to about Tolkien as well as the Tolkien biopic (which I reviewed here). To my surprise, it proved more theologically-rich than I remembered. Maybe it’s because I know more about Tolkien now, and I see more clearly what he was doing. Or maybe I’m like Lucy Pevensie in Prince Caspian: every year I grow, I find “Aslan” even bigger in everything I read and watch.
Except in The Silmarillion, “Aslan” doesn’t go by that name. He is Eru Ilúvatar, the omniscient, omnipresent, omnipotent Creator of Middle-Earth.The Silmarillion* is, in many ways, Tolkien’s theodicy. It is the story of how Melkor, one of the powerful Valar (Archangels), rebelled against Ilúvatar’s Great Music. But it is also the story of how Ilúvatar proves to him that:
…thou, Melkor, shalt see that no theme may be played that hath not its uttermost source in me, nor can any altar the music in my despite. For he that attempted this shall prove but mine instrument in the devising of things more wonderful, which he himself hath not imagined. [emphasis mine]Contrary to popular opinion, Melkor, not Sauron, is the Satan-figure of Tolkien’s legendarium. Sauron is only a servant of Melkor, who, under the later name of Morgoth, sows discord and darkness among Elves, Men, and Dwarves. When Feanor, a passionate Elf-lord, creates the three beautiful Silmarils, Morgoth ensnares him and his people in a war of jealousy, lust, and fury. Before long the Elves are killing each other, Men worship Morgoth, and Orcs and dragons swarm through Middle-Earth. And yet–and yet!–remnants are preserved. The call of Valinor, the Blessed Realm in the West, still reaches many hearts. As one of the first Men, Beor, tells the Elves:
A darkness lies behind us, and we have turned our backs upon it, and we do not desire to return thither even in thought. Westwards our hearts have been turned, and we believe that there we shall find Light.Beor has never seen Valinor–yet he yearns for it. This longing for home permeates The Silmarillion*. The Elves who left Valinor in anger soon grow sad and homesick; the Men who’ve never seen it ache for it. “Certainly there was an Eden on this very unhappy earth,” wrote Tolkien in one of his many letters to his son Christopher. “We all long for it, and we are constantly glimpsing it: our whole nature at its best and least corrupted, its gentlest and most humane, is still soaked with the sense of exile.” Through the homesickness, though, there is joy. In spite of the Elven Kinslaying, or the Battle of Unnumbered Tears, or the tragedy of Turin Turambar, or the Fall of Gondolin, there are…
yet some [tales] in which amid weeping there is joy, and under the shadow of death [a] light that endures.The Tale of Beren and Luthien, a heroic Man and an Elven princess, leads to the story of Tuor and Idril, another romantic Man/Elf pairing. These love matches bring together their estranged races and eventually produce one of Middle-Earth’s greatest heroes: Eärendil, who makes the dangerous journey to Valinor and appeals to the Valar for help. His bravery leads to the Chaining of Morgoth, while Eärendil himself is rewarded with an eternal voyage through the heavens, bearing the last surviving Silmaril aboard his star-trekking ship. In The Lord of the Rings, Galadriel gives Frodo a phial containing the light from Eärendil’s ship…which is, of course, the light of the Silmaril…which contains in its own turn the holy light of the Trees of Valinor. Eärendil’s ship is also most likely the star Sam spots in Mordor, the star which reminds him that there is a “light and a high beauty which no Shadow can touch.” The Silmarillion* is not for the faint of heart: it reads more like Beowulf or The Iliad (minus the poetry) than The Lord of the Rings. That said, it is a deeply Christian work whose influence can be seen even in Peter Jackson’s cinematic trilogy. When I hear Gandalf tell Frodo in the Mines of Moria, “You were meant to have the Ring,” I remember: Ilúvatar planned this at the beginning of the world, in the Ainulindalë! When I watch Frodo hold the Phial of Galadriel in Shelob’s Lair and hear him invoke the Valar, I think: That’s the light of a Silmaril–and the very light of the Blessed Realm! So yes, The Silmarillion is a weighty work–but it is a thing of beauty and will deepen your Lord of the Rings experience, whether you’ve read the books or just seen the movies. Read it, and you, too, may find yourself “wander[ing] ever westward,” heeding the rumor that “in the West there [is] a light which the Shadow [cannot] dim.”