The Scientist as Hero: How HBO’s ‘Chernobyl’ Fails Valery Legasov

CN: Discussion of suicide.

There’s a bleak irony to the fact that a miniseries meant to explore “the cost of lies” climaxes with one. HBO’s Chernobyl–a peerless dramatisation of the world’s worst nuclear disaster spread over five soul-wrenching hours–has to take a certain amount of dramatic licence in order to effectively tell its story, of course. Anything ‘based on a true story’ does. But the climax, which sees our hero Valery Legasov tell a Soviet show trial that “every lie we tell incurs a debt to the truth,” hurts in its beauty because it is founded on a lie. Not only did Legasov not say that, he wasn’t even at that trial. But that’s a mere matter of almost minor historical detail–it does capture a truth about Legasov’s life and struggle to fix the flawed reactor design that ultimately led to the Chernobyl disaster. The real problem is that this invented speech, a dramatic courtroom eruption palatable for American audiences reared on grand speeches from the bar, is unearned and cuts to the heart of Chernobyl’s biggest flaw.

The show did not show us how Legasov became the kind of person who would confront the system he served for so long.

***

Valery Alexeyvich Legasov was the Deputy Director of the Kurchatov Institute of Atomic Energy, one of the doyens of the Soviet nuclear industry and, at 47, a grandee of Soviet academe in a system of deified scientists. He was summoned to oversee the relief effort at Chernobyl, a monumental, unprecedented, and above all deadly undertaking which the HBO series dramatises in dozens of profoundly moving scenes.

HBO’s Chernobyl is necessarily a grim enterprise. This is not a happy garden of truths grown upon a tragedy but something buried, with a man almost forgotten, beneath a sarcophagus and dozens of unmarked graves for irradiated animals, vehicles, and bits of life obliterated. The show pays a reverential respect to that truth, commendably so. Every actor on screen with longer than a sentence of dialogue brings pathos and gravity to an event Legasov described as occurring on “a planetary scale.”

But television must be about people; Chernobyl brilliantly uses the tropes of disaster films and the horror genre to tell its truths, but it is still ultimately constrained by those very tropes. And thus Legasov is presented to us as The Hero Scientist from the outset. We see him in a ratty Moscow apartment, immediately expressing concern about the Chernobyl disaster when it’s described to him over the phone by Minister Boris Scherbina, and he bravely stands up to the entire complacent Soviet government to tell them he sincerely believes that something terrible has happened at the Chernobyl power station. It’s gripping stuff, and one can easily be carried along by the strong currents of Jared Harris’ star-turn performance as Legasov and Craig Mazin’s occasionally brilliant turns of phrase.

But it sets a tone that the show can never escape: Legasov was a good man from the start, waiting for his moment to be the reluctant hero.

None of this is true.

***

I should start by saying that I admire Legasov, with some reservations. He’s a problematic fave. Whenever I teach ethics in technology, I end the term with a long but brilliant quote from him about how “technology must be protected from man,” which he gave in a taped interview with a Ukrainian journalist. But my admiration stems precisely from the fact that he did good at the end of his life despite being a profoundly flawed human being, something she show acknowledges but spends little time on.

The show does reveal to the audience that Legasov knew about the fatal flaw in all RBMK reactors, that their control rods were tipped with graphite (see an explanation for why that’s extremely bad here). It also reveals, at the very end, a litany of sins in his family history and carried out to curry favour with party officials as Deputy Director of the Kurchatov Institute. But these are only brief nods to an ugly reality that would impede the show’s scientist-as-hero structure.

In the third episode of the HBO series, Harris’ Legasov explodes in frustration about the ideological manner in which the relief effort is being handled. “Maybe I’ve just spent too much time in my lab, or maybe I’m just stupid. Is this really the way it all works?” he asks sarcastically, cursing the “Party men” and “apparatchiks” with their arbitrary decision-making. The thing is, he was a Party man and apparatchik, for all of his life up to that point, right through much of the relief effort. He did not begin his time in Chernobyl as a heroic scientist, but as a committed adjunct to the Soviet state, continuing to participate in its cover-ups and its ideological statecraft. As journalist Masha Gessen–who grew up in the Soviet Union–notes in her recent critique for the New Yorker, “Yes, of course this is the way it works, and, no, he hasn’t been in his lab so long that he didn’t realize that this is how it works. The fact of the matter is, if he didn’t know how it worked, he would never have had a lab.”

The real Valery Legasov (Igor Kostin – Sputnik)

The miniseries does us a disservice by denying us Legasov’s very real arc of transformation, from Party Man to nuclear dissident, from apparatchik to hero. The show captures a certain truth in this; the courtroom scene, which Mazin acknowledges on the Chernobyl podcast to be a narrative contrivance, is a compression of Legasov’s final year into one poignant moment. There is artistic value in this–the scene itself is stunning, beautifully acted, accurate in many historical details, and well written. But the thrust of Legasov’s speech, as written by Mazin, is that the truth will have its due and that fabulation can have a deadly cost.

All I could think about was the fact that Mazin himself had repeatedly said our current political moment was a propitious time to retell this story. In an age of brazen, authoritarian lying from Donald Trump, of disinformation campaigns and irony choking the internet, of fake news spreading before the truth has a foot in the stirrup, Mazin wanted this story about the “cost of lies” to act as a fable for our times. It succeeds in this, but only to a point. What we really need is not only a moral exemplar, but moral guidance. How do we become a man like Legasov, willing to take on such an empire of lies? Instead, he’s presented to us as fully-formed, just waiting for his moment–if a bit nebbishly.

Gessen condemns this more broadly, arguing persuasively that despite the plot and dialogue, the show’s characterisation and symbolism indict and extol individuals rather than systems:

“It was the system, made up primarily of pliant men and women, that cut its own corners, ignored its own precautions, and ultimately blew up its own nuclear reactor for no good reason except that this was how things were done. The viewer is invited to fantasize that, if not for [series villain and deputy chief engineer Anatoly] Dyatlov, the better men would have done the right thing and the fatal flaw in the reactor, and the system itself, might have remained latent. This is a lie.”

From left to right, seated: Viktor Bryukhanov, Anatoly Dyatlov, and Nikolai Fomin at their 1987 trial.

Just as Legasov is a one dimensional hero, so too do the three men who ended up in the dock at the show-trial end up cast as almost absurd villains. The stellar acting in the series does so much to direct our gaze away from the hackneyed archetypes being played. Dyatlov was indeed a bully, but his proportions were exaggerated significantly. He had also lost his son to a nuclear disaster that occurred much earlier in his life, something he always blamed himself for. Plant director Viktor Bryukhanov was, by all accounts, a fundamentally decent man who simply became complacent–a picture beautifully sketched in journalist Adam Higginbotham’s Midnight at Chernobyl. Chief engineer Nikolai Fomin was indeed a Party nepotism hire who only learned about nuclear reactors through a correspondence course but he was also profoundly struck by the tragedy. He attempted suicide in prison by breaking his glasses.

Deleted scenes from the HBO series would’ve acknowledged much more of this, but Mazin shied away from making the men too sympathetic. He was also ruthless about eschewing any portrayal of family connections, believing this would somehow distract the audience or seem too manipulative. Thus these three men get to be cast as unalloyed villains.

The problem with them is the inverse of Legasov’s. We’re led to believe that Bad Men do worse things. Instead, the story of Dyatlov, Bryukhanov, and Fomin is a story of how flawed men can become so wrapped up in a system that they don’t even notice the harm they’re doing, less because of selfishness than inertia and myopia. Chernobyl the TV-show captured some of this sleepwalking, this sense that this happened because people were content to do things the way they’d always been done, but again the demands of narrative had to bend these unpliable men into characters.

The manner in which this was done leaves us all the poorer, and it is here we must return to Legasov.

***

Chernobyl Episode 2: Stellan Skarsgård as Boris Scherbina, Jared Harris as Valery Legasov. (Liam Daniel/HBO)

The miniseries doubles down on Legasov as a hero by embellishing his modesty. But in reality, he didn’t live in a creaky apartment as the show suggests. When he committed suicide he hung himself from a stairwell in a lavish house situated in the Soviet Muscovite equivalent of Georgetown or Riverdale. He was portrayed as someone who only discovered politics after he’d been to Chernobyl, when in fact he actually received the momentous phone call summoning him to the investigative commission while he was enthusiastically helping to run a local Communist Party meeting. He routinely hosted soirees at his lovely home, with his wife and children (who are never seen in the miniseries), and a who’s who of the Soviet nomenklatura and scientific elite. His rise through the scientific ranks was meteoric by any standard, earning him the best life possible in the USSR.

In the final episode, the show gestures briefly at all of this–the KGB secretary (also a fictional, composite character played to chilling perfection by Alan Williams) dangles the directorship of the Kurchatov Institute in front of Legasov in exchange for his silence, which really was an honour he was due to receive–but it was never the heart of Legasov’s journey.

In truth, his agony at Chernobyl was in part caused by the inexorably slow way in which it ate away at all his certainties about the system he’d benefitted from all his life. It unravelled from the radiation as surely as his DNA. He had every incentive to shut up and keep his head down, and he did for a while, even after he came home from Chernobyl. But we don’t get a clear sense of this from HBO’s Chernobyl, as is evidenced from the fictive humility Legasov is imbued with.

It is clear the show tried to portray this sparingly, but it was, in the end, too enamoured of the narrative role The Hero could play for its harrowing story. Perhaps we did need one likeable, noble character to keep us coming back hour after painful hour.

But we also needed to see a dramatisation of how someone goes from being a bigoted apparatchik who willingly advanced unjust systems for his own gain, to someone who would give his life to save millions of people, who ultimately sacrificed everything to do what was right and stand against the awesome power of an unjust regime. What was that journey actually like? How did he come to risk everything the Soviet system had privileged him with in order to do what was right? We don’t know, at least not from this rendition.

Artistically, the miniseries works brilliantly. It’s worth watching; it is, in its dark sweep, an act of reverence, fittingly ending with a choral benediction. No one can watch this show and come away without a marrow-deep respect for the monumental sacrifice made by hundreds of thousands of Soviet citizens in the Exclusion Zone, nor doubt Craig Mazin and his crew’s commitment to memorialising that suffering. But to meet the challenge of our age, as Mazin wished, the miniseries needed to do something just a little bit more.

We needed an arc for Legasov, something to indicate his very real growth, something to serve as a true model in these truthless times. As it is, this fictionalised image of him is worth aspiring to but there is no guide on how to get there, and in that sense it does a disservice to the real Valery Legasov even as it gives him the tribute he deserved and the life he was denied. He was complicit for so long. How he atoned for that is the heart of his heroism, and Chernobyl gives us only a glimpse of that. Similarly, there is no sense of how the men in charge of the Chernobyl power station slipped into an inertia that made disaster inevitable. Bad Men do bad things; Good Men fix them.

I fear the debt incurred by the fiction of the HBO miniseries is that people will go on waiting for the Hero of our age without realising that they, with all our entanglements and flaws and incentives to keep calm and carry on, are the ones we’re waiting for. The only ones we can rely on.

One thought on “The Scientist as Hero: How HBO’s ‘Chernobyl’ Fails Valery Legasov

  1. I just wanted to say how much I appreciated your thoughtful and thought-provoking review/op-ed. We are certainly in one of those times where people muddle along, waiting for the hero. But there are many people on whom it is dawning that it is they who must rise to the call. What happens in the next year and a half will show whether enough answer to make the difference.
    Keep sounding your clarion, dear!

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