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kenmorefield

Chernobyl

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I am admittedly wrestling with whether now is the best or worst possible moment to finally getting around to HBO's Chernobyl

It is devastating on so many levels, but most particularly the blunt illustrations of how the failures of systems are borne by individuals, and usually not the ones with the most invested in the system or the biggest hand in making them that way. 

Neither is the series about "heroes" in the face of circumstance, unlikely or not. The guys that swim under the reactor to hand turn the pumps do so because, as the autocrat says, it must be done, and they are the only ones who can do it. And yet, if the series can be believed we came within 48 hours of half a continent being uninhabitable for thousands of years. There is something both horrible and familiar (horribly familiar) about how the doers at all class levels have learned to ignore the "leaders" either by work around (the scientist speak in code on the phone, talking about nieces and nephews of a certain age so that the initials and ages correspond to chemical elements) or simply speaking to each other directly. ("If those things worked," a miner says of protective masks, "you'd be wearing them.") Even so, the human cost is unfathomable since, given time, that is the only resource to be thrown at the catastrophe. And each lie increases the death toll, and yet some must lie to stay alive long enough to keep even more from dying. 

If, like me, you look around at some recent disaster and wonder, "Will this be enough to change us?" How close must we get to the edge before we turn around? And  if, like me, on your darkest days, you think, no, we'll never turn around of our own volition, perhaps things that break systems are lust horrible, painful events that force us, in some small degree, to do what we know we should but can't bring ourselves to by strength of our fallen will, then this series will most likely resonate with you.

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22 hours ago, kenmorefield said:

I am admittedly wrestling with whether now is the best or worst possible moment to finally getting around to HBO's Chernobyl

I'd vote for best, considering I'm reading Stephen King's The Stand for the first time since my adolescence, because 1) it's about all my attention span can manage, and 2) there's something cathartic about sublimating fears into an even worse-case scenario.

22 hours ago, kenmorefield said:

If, like me, you look around at some recent disaster and wonder, "Will this be enough to change us?" How close must we get to the edge before we turn around? And  if, like me, on your darkest days, you think, no, we'll never turn around of our own volition, perhaps things that break systems are lust horrible, painful events that force us, in some small degree, to do what we know we should but can't bring ourselves to by strength of our fallen will, then this series will most likely resonate with you.

I don't say any of this to get into a political dispute, but the facts that Trump's approval rating reportedly stands at about 52%, and that the Dems are leaning towards Biden over Bernie (as the New York Times put it, restoration over revolution) suggest a more pessimistic short-term view.


To be an artist is never to avert one's eyes.
- Akira Kurosawa

https://www.patheos.com/blogs/secularcinephile/

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On 3/27/2020 at 4:14 PM, Andrew said:

I don't say any of this to get into a political dispute, but the facts that Trump's approval rating reportedly stands at about 52%, and that the Dems are leaning towards Biden over Bernie (as the New York Times put it, restoration over revolution) suggest a more pessimistic short-term view.

Certainly one of the things that resonates to me about the series is the effects, both short and long term, on the culture of not being able to trust *any* sources of information. To that extent Trump's villification of the news is relevant and not a particularly partisan issue. Increasingly, in my observation, everyone (people on left and right) are suspicious of sources of information, not just the usual, partisan suspects. 

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Glad you had a chance to catch up with this, Ken. It is an amazing piece of work - well plotted, paced, and structured. There is some interesting commentary out there on how the series reads political elements of the event and perhaps overplays the scientist vs. the system plot. I did notice this in a few moments, especially the final episode with its series of manicured court scenes and soapbox moments. Though, even if these criticisms are accepted, the series does nail what more informed people have described as a base Soviet cultural willingness to labor on behalf of the state without question.

My non-faculty work requires familiarity with and application of the US history of policy related to science, biomedical research, and related domains. My mind kept wandering back to some of the events around the institution of FDA, especially the Kefauver Harris Amendment in 1962 and the complex series of events around NIH ethical review from the 1950s to early 1980s. Given cultural and economic differences, the regulatory narratives do not really align. But there is a very translatable theme here in Chernobyl, which has to do with how while governments see science/technology as a tool, scientists see their work as a matter of technique. This is a difficult utilitarian barrier to overcome, which leads to environmental crisis, abuses of humans and data, violations of social welfare, etc...   

The miniseries does a good job of tracking how scientists and mining experts kept thinking and innovating in terms of technique (e.g. iterations of roof clearing robots) to stay ahead of the bureaucratic frenzy to minimize the disaster. 

Which is an alarming familiar trope for the present. 


"...the vivid crossing of borders between film and theology may save the film from the banality of cinema and festival business, and it may also save the church from the deep sleep of the habitual and the always known."

(Hans Werner Dannowski)

Filmwell | Twitter

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12 hours ago, M. Leary said:

Glad you had a chance to catch up with this, Ken. It is an amazing piece of work - well plotted, paced, and structured. There is some interesting commentary out there on how the series reads political elements of the event and perhaps overplays the scientist vs. the system plot. I did notice this in a few moments, especially the final episode with its series of manicured court scenes and soapbox moments. Though, even if these criticisms are accepted, the series does nail what more informed people have described as a base Soviet cultural willingness to labor on behalf of the state without question.

 

The weird thing about the theme in your last sentence is that I don't think it is an unreasonable interpretation to say that their willingness to do this is the only thing that averted an even greater catastrophe. (Although, if it contributed to the catastrophe in the first place....). So I'm not so sure that it is only on behalf of the state. Part of what we are seeing in the show (and today) is the system's ability, and that of master manipulators to intertwine service to the state with other kinds of service (to the general good) in ways that make the latter impossible without kneeling to the former. So people are forever having to choose between acceding to the state or allowing some sort of large-scale suffering. The state is more tolerant of wide-scale death (it can preserve itself even in the face of that) and so better at playing chicken with innocent lives.

Regarding the science v. system, I resonated strongly with the exchange (maybe episode two?) where Shcherbina tells Legasov words to the effect of "I wish you'd stick to talking about things you understand and not about things you don't understand." Shcherbina reminds me of Fetisov in Citizen X, and the key relationship between the male leads in that film evidences many of the same dynamics. I am, in some ways, more interested in the Fetisov and Shcherbina characters because of their choices to work within the system -- how it simultaneously enables the scientist/policeman to do work they otherwise couldn't and yet strengthens the system to make it harder for it to ever change. It's fascinating because it gives me a glimmer, I suspect, of how people within systems rationalize their own participation.

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5 hours ago, kenmorefield said:

So people are forever having to choose between acceding to the state or allowing some sort of large-scale suffering. The state is more tolerant of wide-scale death (it can preserve itself even in the face of that) and so better at playing chicken with innocent lives.

This is an interesting reflection and merits more conversation! I do like the utter humanity of the miners in the series, who serve as a foil to state language around service, safety, etc... There is a Tarkovsky or Dovzhenko sensitivity to human charity working within the machinery of state language at play here.

After I wrote that science v. system bit, I realized my observation requires a lot more nuance. I have worked with numerous federally-funded scientists in the US and other national systems, and can confirm that what you are saying is a better description. There is an art to applying for federal funding in ways that matches national interests in science (as tools for social good or social manipulation) in such a way that scientific data and technique also advance in empirical ways.

We are seeing that play out right now in FDA expanded access for COVID-19 related therapeutics. If you read between the lines, you can see labs/researchers knowing exactly what to do and trying to negotiate existing federal pathways to make these studies and lab-based tests happen rapidly. The struggle is real.

Edited by M. Leary

"...the vivid crossing of borders between film and theology may save the film from the banality of cinema and festival business, and it may also save the church from the deep sleep of the habitual and the always known."

(Hans Werner Dannowski)

Filmwell | Twitter

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Similarly repetitive and ridiculous are the many scenes of heroic scientists confronting intransigent bureaucrats by explicitly criticizing the Soviet system of decision-making. In Episode 3, for example, Legasov asks, rhetorically, “Forgive me—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? An uninformed, arbitrary decision that will cost who knows how many lives that is made by some apparatchik, some career Party man?” 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.

Resignation was the defining condition of Soviet life. But resignation is a depressing and untelegenic spectacle. So the creators of “Chernobyl” imagine confrontation where confrontation was unthinkable—and, in doing so, they cross the line from conjuring a fiction to creating a lie. The Belarusian scientist Ulyana Khomyuk (Emily Watson) is even more confrontational than Legasov. 

...

Testifying in court during the final episode, Legasov says, “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.” One would think that a vacuum created by lies could be filled by truth. Instead, it is filled by an entirely fictional, fantastical trial at which a large group of people—scientists, we are told—are given an accurate assessment of events in an accessible, brilliant speech, the likes of which Soviet courts didn’t feature.

We had a free trial of HBO, so I finally had a chance to catch up with this, and it's quite good.  I don't know to what degree this is an indicia of a good piece of art based on real events, but it's made me want to read and learn more about the disaster, which I remember discussing with my 9th grade science teacher when it happened.  (Aside: we were asking the teacher why the Soviets insisted on refusing to admit what had happened.  He said they didn't want to lose face.  I said, "Well, haven't they already lost enough faces?"  The class laughed and I wish I could punch the fourteen year-old version of myself.)  I found that NYer article Mike linked above and listened to the five-part podcast HBO put out to provide footnotes and a sort of writer's commentary on an episode-by-episode basis.

It's always an interesting question to consider the degree to which an artist trying to tell a story about real people and real events has any obligation to model verisimilitude, but it's funny to hear the show's creator/writer Craig Mazin describe the extreme lengths to which they went to replicate the uniform a firefighter in Pripyat would have worn in 1985, and then fudged things related to how the events unfolded.  I don't necessarily blame him, but I've come around to thinking that in at least one significant way his departures undercut his narrative and theme signficantly at the expense of wrapping up the events in a manner that fit into a conventional box.

So--and I quoted some portions of the NYer article relevant to this discussion above--the two main departures are, first, the creation of Khomyuk, a composite character who does the ground-level investigating for Legasov to find out why the reactor exploded and then urges him to tell the whole story at Vienna and afterward.  It's sensible to me to create a composite character when the actual investigation was done by a dozen or so scientists who are largely interchangeable.  The second departure is in the players and content of the trial at Chernobyl, which Mazin sets up as the dramatic climax to the miniseries and where Legasov gets to lay out the whole story, like he's solving a whodunit.   This is where the story turns fairly conventional, with Legasov deciding to fix his mistake from Vienna and tell the whole truth, no matter the consequences, and Shcherbina interrupts the judges who try to shut Legasov down, and at this point Chernobyl's narrative resolution isn't much different from FOOTLOOSE, with Shcherbina basically saying, "Let him dance," and so then Legasov tells the truth and willingly pays the consequences, which is the KGB officer telling him that his career is over and he'll have to stay quiet for the rest of his life, since his service to the Party included oppressing Jewish scientists, so after his heroic voiceover he sinks into obscurity in a dingy apartment and hangs himself two years after the reactor meltdown.Mazin says this isn't how it happened at all--the real Legasov was upfront from the start about describing Chernobyl as both the result of operator error and a design defect that plagued all of the USSR's reactors, and the Party choked him out and made him irrelevant by assigning him menial jobs for the rest of his life, and the rest of the scientific community went along with it because that's what people did.  He wasn't at the trial, which was just a showpiece designed to pin blame on Dyatlov, and Legasov's eventual suicide was what spurred his recorded recollections to be taken seriously and to be used to potentially save lives in the form of fixing the defective reactors.  Some of this is buried in the super-conventional lame-o endnotes and real photos/footage that people feel compelled to attach to all manners of films and shows about real people and events these days.

What's odd to me is that Mazin didn't grasp that the real sequence of events without his inventions regarding Legasov and the trial was so much more affecting and straightforward than what he came up with.  He opens with Legasov's suicide, so by the time the series is over we're led to think his decision was prompted by the fact that he was made irrelevant after he told the truth at the trial.  And yet, in that version, the truth is out there, having been aired in court in front of the jury of scientists, so his motivation seems oddly self-centered , against the backdrop of the archetypal truth-teller hero model.  The reality is that he'd been ignored by everyone, Party and scientist alike, and had to be the bearer of knowledge that nobody was listening to or changing their policy, safety be damned, and he couldn't live with that.  The actual truth is way, way better than just ending an amazing miniseries like an episode of f'ing Law and Order.
 


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