John Seven | Viewer's Discretion: 'Chernobyl' probes darker side of Russian politics

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It might be surprising that a mini-series dramatizing a devastating nuclear power plant accident in the Soviet Union in 1986 has met success, especially considering the show's embrace of the gloomy and the grotesque, and rightfully so. But if it is a surprise, maybe you haven't been paying attention to the state of the world. "Chernobyl" tapped into something a lot of people are feeling, and not without good reason.

Following Russian nuclear scientist Valery Legasov (Jared Harris) and politician Boris Shcherbina (Stellan Skarsg rd), the series moves carefully through the aftermath in order to do its best — within a television drama format, of course, this is not a documentary — to lay out the reasons for the disaster and examine the Soviet system's specific culpability in these matters. If it works partly for its exploration of the event, it's the performers who are crucial to the series success, lending personality and humanity to totems in a morality play, fleshing the drama out in a compelling way.

There are plenty of specific culprits pointed to in the series, but the ultimate prognosis is clear. What happened at Chernobyl is a result of incompetence and cronyism, of misinformation, of cutting corners. It's the result of what happens when a disdain for scientific accuracy becomes the dominant characteristics of a government's approach to the technological concerns of its own country. Most importantly, it's the result of a triumph of nationalism over truth, when the demand that we protect the reputation of a nation overrules everything else.

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As television viewers turn away from a national political situation that has openly flaunted nepotism and antagonism toward dissent, as facts are openly ridiculed and paranoia has become the guiding principle of our central office, a show about the crumbling Soviet Union sure looks familiar. And as this dynamic pushes our leaders to rail against the reality of climate change rather than face up to the looming disaster, a show like "Chernobyl" starts to look less like history and a lot more like prophecy.

At its essence, "Chernobyl" is the story of an invisible cancer that defines a political system and then becomes released, bringing visible destruction to the participants in that system. As a political fable for the 21st century, its message is loud and clear, and it's about much more than nuclear power.

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French artist Cl ment Cogitore takes his camera to a remote location in the Siberian forest to capture the life of one family and discover just how far the darker sides of humanity have infested even the most unlikely locations of the earth.

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Told with no narration or context, only what the subjects themselves offer in filmed interviews, this documentary offers beautifully filmed, but no-nonsense footage of the Braguino family and their day-to-day lifestyle. Hinging on the narrative provided by the father, who seems to want to be the official spokesman and center of the presentation, Cogitore veers his camera to the oldest son — who seems to be the family's chief troubleshooter — and the little children who play through the day on a little island in a river that the family shares with another one.

It's this other family, largely unseen throughout the film, that provides the greatest tension. Tall tales arise about the Kilines, who, by the Braguino accounts, appear to be in cahoots with Russian government bigwigs, operating an expansive surveillance system and shuttling in outsiders for illegal hunting trips, as well as threatening the Braguinos and even stealing some of their land. It all sounds a little elevated until the point that you begin to believe it. The best sequence in the film involves the children of different families, encountering and ignoring each other on the island as if inhabiting two different realities.

The message is clear — the desire of the Braguino is one of an idyllic, simple life uncluttered by civilization. But even with that mission, and in a setting that should provide it, paranoia and oppression make their appearance. Cogitore shoots the situation with the exact tranquility the location should provide, but the conclusion implies that ultimately, there is no escape.

John Seven is a writer in North Adams who has never been satisfied by movies and television that are easy to come by. He likes to do some digging. Find him online at


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