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May 07, 2019

Secrets, Lies, and Power

HBO’s Chernobyl reminds us of the dangers inherent in secrecy and simple lies.

Melissa Byers
  • HBO
  • HBO
  • HBO
  • HBO

"It would be hard to make an uplifting story about Chernobyl. Not one that wasn't untruthful, anyway."

Jared Harris is talking about the intense, dark story Chernobyl, the five-part miniseries which premiered on HBO on Monday, May 6.

The story of the worst nuclear plant meltdown in history seems to be well-known, but the truth of the story and the people involved in the incident have been shrouded in Soviet-era obfuscation and outright lies from the first alarm. Series creator Craig Mazin and director Johan Ranck set out to make a testament to the human cost and the human heroism of the event.

Harris plays Valery Lagasov, a Soviet scientist who must walk the fine line between explaining the science and toeing the Soviet line on information. The very first scene shows Lagasov mailing a package, and then returning to his apartment and hanging himself. Thus begins the story of what really happened.

Harris says, "There's a kind of mystery to it, isn't there? Why did he do it? And then, of course, you understand why. It was his sort of final act of defiance, in a way. And he was dead anyway."

Legasov was one of the many involved in the aftermath of the accident and its cover-up who were exposed to high levels of radiation that eventually killed them. As the viewer discovers during the coda to the series, Legasov's suicide and the material he sent out just before he died forced the Soviets to admit to much of what had really happened in Chernobyl.

The filmmakers stayed as true to the original story as possible. Harris says, "There was a big drive towards authenticity, and being truthful - with obviously some telescoping of timelines that you have to do, but wanting to be truthful. You need to give it some scope as well, so that means that you need to inject some sort of cinematic tools towards it.

"I think Johan and the DP did a brilliant job of that. There are times where there's some stunning visuals in it. But you never feel like you stepped out of the genre into a different type of story telling. It's really really well-juggled by them."

And although the creators, including the actors, did a great deal of research into the people portrayed in the series, it was not an easy task to get to the truth.

Harris says, "I did lots of research. It's a true story so you dig in to all that available material because it provides you with a shortcut to all the questions that you have. I was surprised about how hard it is to dig up information on [Lagasov]. Somebody did a brilliant job of erasing him from the story.

"There's a few things out there still. Some footage of him talking to the conference in Vienna. Some newsreel footage of him walking around the site. But there's very little of him. Of his own words.

"His report, as well, is impossible to get your hands on. They did a brilliant job of erasing him from the story, which they said they were going to do.

"I find it extraordinary because in the aftermath of having worked on it, you tell people what you're working on. They go, 'Oh yeah, Chernobyl, I know about that. That all started because somebody dropped a spanner into the nuclear reactor.' I would laugh, and then go - because of course it's an absurd idea -but also, 'How successful the Soviet's story still was to this day that it was down to human error.'

"Which of course is what they try and do when a plane goes down - you blame the pilot. You blame the systems, and the mechanics, and the engineering. That story is still successfully out there, that it was an individual's fault."

Another purpose of the piece was to show the damage that governmental lies can cause.

Harris says, "I think that's one of the takeaways for me. All governments circle the wagons to protect themselves and that's something that as Americans you're familiar with, but I think the thing that was deadly over there was that the population no longer expected to get the truth from their government, and they'd become cynical.

"When that happens, there's no desire, there's no belief in the point of holding your government to account, and they give up. Then of course, you're really in trouble. I think it's about not allowing the body politic or whatever the correct phrase - the citizenship - to become cynical. Because once that happens, then you're in real trouble.

"The whole idea that politicians should be truth tellers is ridiculous. They're supposed to be good liars on some level, aren't they? You don't expect them to be truthful, otherwise they're going to get taken advantage of, if they're naïve fools. That's not the world that they live in.

"You want to expect to be able to hold power to account and that was no longer possible in that system. That's where it all starts to go wrong.

"That was very, very much part of what Craig saw as the overriding theme of the whole thing. A simple lie - how dangerous that one, simple lie was. It wouldn't have happened if they'd told those guys under certain conditions the A-Z1 button becomes a detonator and do not press it."

But, while "official" source material was hard to come by, Harris and his fellow actors and creators did manage to find some excellent sources. "There's lots of incredibly great material out there, Harris says. "There's a book called Voices from Chernobyl that's just fascinating. It's poetic, it's heartrending, it's absurd.

"It's full of first-person accounts of people who were there at the time, who experienced it, who were forced to evacuate. Some of them go back because they didn't know anything else. Wonderful, from that point of view.
 
"There's a specific Soviet mentality, isn't there? Or a Slavic mentality. A certain kind of endurance of misery, and as Craig pointed out - that part of the world has endured stunning misery. Back to the collapse of the Romanovs, the establishment of the communist society, World War I, World War II, the problems after World War II, Stalin, the Nazis. I mean, its ground is soaked in blood."

With all the darkness of the story, what would draw an actor to be part of a project like Chernobyl? Harris explains, "You know, obviously if HBO is interested in making it, you know it means it's special. I read it, and it was a page-turner, it was absolutely gripping.

"I'd speak to my dear friends, acting mates back in England, and everyone was talking about it. It was the best thing going around at that time and everyone was excited about it. When I read it, I loved it.

"They had written the first four episodes, so I jumped on board and said 'Absolutely, would love to do it.' Met Craig, chatted to him about it.

"Its always the writing, if its a good story. At the end of the day, even though it's some hard-hitting material, its still entertainment, and it has to work on that level.

"I wanted to know what happened. And if I'm not interested in the story, why would I want to tell it? I found it gripping, fascinating. I remember being in London at the time when [Chernobyl] happened, so I had some personal memory of the whole experience. I was completely blown aback about my understanding of what happened. And I was really moved by the stories of individual heroism. It's just great, great material.

"It was the best thing that I'd read since The Terror, which is the best thing that I'd read since The Crown, which is the best thing that I'd read since Mad Men.

"If the material is good, the story's good, it makes the job of an actor a lot easier because you can ride on that. If you're working on something where the story's not too strong, then you've got to distract the audience from plot holes.

"You try and dazzle them elsewhere. Hope that they don't notice it until they watch it a second time, you know? Then it's like, 'Wait! That made no sense!'

"It just makes one's life a lot easier if you can rest on that. You can rely on that story. You want to ask yourselves questions with any text that you have.

"First, actors get trained through theater, and in theater you're trained using classical text. The author's no longer around to ask him 'What did you mean by - ?' You dig into the text, and you ask questions, and you work for the part. If it's good material, you'll find that the answers are all there, because the author thought of it.

"So you bring that same kind of analysis to contemporary screenplays, and all those answers are in there."

And even among all the darkness and chaos of the story, some light shines through in the heroism of Lagasov, and in what happens to some of the other characters.

One of the first responders to the crisis at the plant is a fireman played by Harris's The Terror nemesis, Adam Nagaitis, who is horrifyingly irradiated. His wife Ludmilla, played by Jessie Buckley, defies all the regulations to be by his side, even though she is pregnant.

The scenes in the hospital are, as Harris says, "heartbreaking," but after losing the baby conceived just before Chernobyl and being told that she could never have children because of her exposure, we learn in the coda that she did, in fact, remarry and have a healthy child with whom she now lives.

Harris notes that the series does have a few relatively happy moments. He says, "There's glimmers of hope in the story, you know? At a high cost."
 


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