HBO’s Chernobyl is Misery Porn, and Therefore Largely Inaccurate

entrance_to_zone_of_alienation_around_chernobyl
Entrance to the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. By Slawojar – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons

In retrospect, both of the statements in this headline invite a “duh” response. HBO’s current stock-in-trade is prestige TV series, and it’s been apparent since the second season of True Detective that prestige television is an exercise in miserabilism. Nothing good can happen and everyone of value has to die or lose what they love unless they’ve tacked up enough suffering points (looking at you, Sansa Stark) to trade in for a happy ending. It has become its own set of tropes.
And of course, when real life gets shoved into a TV script, the exercise of creating a narrative for audiences to follow will simplify a lot of the messiness of actual truth. That’s completely understandable and not worth commenting on. But when a show deliberately ramps up the misery, and evades truth to do so, that deserves notice.

There is no good evidence that Chernobyl radiation killed a baby nor that it caused any increase in birth defects.

“We’ve now had a chance to observe all the children that have been born close to Chernobyl,” reported UCLA physician Robert Gale in 1987, and “none of them, at birth, at least, has had any detectable abnormalities.”

Indeed, the only public health impact beyond the deaths of the first responders was 20,000 documented cases of thyroid cancer in those aged under 18 at the time of the accident.

The United Nations in 2017 concluded that only 25%, 5,000, can be attributed to Chernobyl radiation (paragraphs A-C). In earlier studies, the UN estimated there could be up to 16,000 cases attributable to Chernobyl radiation.

Since thyroid cancer has a mortality rate of just one percent, that means the expected deaths from thyroid cancers caused by Chernobyl will be 50 to 160 over an 80-year lifespan.

It’s worse than that. Did you know that 80% of the Chernobyl first-responders who suffered from Acute Radiation Syndrome survived? That seems like a really high number, so the link goes to the official report where the numbers are from. You can see for yourself.

Better yet, read this interview with the Soviet general in charge of the containment operation for his take on the show. He’s kind of okay with it, but finds a lot of it baffling, particularly the image of teenage conscripts shooting pets in suburban areas.

Tarakanov: There’s this episode [in the HBO series], it’s is an ugly one. They show this boy, a conscript arriving at the military compound. What comes next is just ridiculous. They give him a uniform and moments later they are teaching him how to shoot animals. I mean, that’s just silly. Nothing even close to that ever happened. This is one serious mistake.

RTD: Are you saying they never executed animals, like they show in the episode?

Tarakanov: No, they did, but never in the residential area. In the residential parts, there were no cows, no dogs – not a single one. The shooting did take place, but it was in the forests, where wild animals still roamed, including deer, as well as cattle that wandered off after the evacuation. But to show this young boy, recently drafted, being given all this equipment straight away [is just absurd].

The way it actually happened was pretty simple. The government issued a decree announcing general mobilization. They were supposed to call in 20,000 reservists, as they were called, from, say, Moscow and elsewhere… Those were all men of conscription age, between 30 and 40, mostly.

To ask the question of why this change was made is to answer it. The emotional impact of seeing a young boy being ordered to shoot animals next to what was a family home is much greater than a 30-year-old man shooting a deer in the forest. We need that emotional impact. We need that gut-punch. That’s why people watch something like Chernobyl, and that’s why HBO makes it.

It’s a high-brow soap-opera, aspiring to be Aeschylus. In the process, actual humans are turned into props, puppets, and beasts. There’s a segment of society that feels its worldview pandered to thereby.

John C. Wright on The Grand Christian Conspiracy

Which is always assumed, but somehow never demonstrated.

Paul got wealth and prestige and money by spreading the doctrine of Jesus, and the Jewish and Roman authorities anointed him with honors. Peter likewise was exulted and died a wealthy man, surrounded by children and grandchildren, and John retired to a small island in the Mediterranean in his leisure years. Thomas traveled to India, sightseeing, and was well received by the natives. Bartholomew made a fortune in the tanning business. So the Church was a moneymaking juggernaut in Nero’s time, and many Christians in Rome went into business lighting the public streets. Others when into the entertainment industry. Perpetua and Felicitas  are still remembered for their animal act.

“lighting the public streets” That’s just funny, that is.

Watching Wright disembowel rhetorical commonplaces is always a pleasure.

Quick Review: The Favourite

the-favourite-image-credit_-yorgos-lanthimos-rachel-weisz-olivia-colman-e1532374834538One of these days, I’m going to write one of these that’s not about the Stuart dynasty in some way.

Queen Anne reigned briefly at the beginning of the 18th century, and spent most of her reign at war with France over who got to sit on the throne of Spain (that Hapsburg penchant for cousin marriage caught up with them). She is not well-remembered. Fat, sad, gouty, and childless, she seemed largely at the mercy of court favorites, especially the Churchills (yes, Sir Winston’s ancestors, the 1st Duke of Marlborough and his wife). Her 17(!) pregnancies resulted in 4 live babies, none of whom made it past the age of 11. When she died, the very Glorious Revolution that put her sister and then her on the throne decreed that a Hanoverian clod named George should occupy it instead of the surviving members of her family. In short, in an unlucky dynasty, she was perhaps the unluckiest, almost certainly the saddest. Even her grandfather’s grandmother Mary, in her proud, defiant exile, never approached that level of melancholy.

Now, historians will quibble over how true that really was, and point out counter-narrative facts, like how Anne presided over Cabinet meetings far more regularly than her predecessors or successors. But this is the movies, and the movies will print the legend. So Queen Anne becomes a cipher controlled by other women.

And more than controlled. Because this is a 21st century film, we must treat 18th century gossip-rag rumor (the Gawker of its day) as Gospel truth, and believe that Her Majesty was giving away more than her trust to her favorite women. We will leave utterly unexplored the relationship between her and her husband, Prince George of Denmark, the father of those 17 pregnancies, nor give any credence to the widely-reported rumor that she loved him deeply and was heartbroken at the loss of him. That kind of film won’t give us a chance to see Emma Stone naked.

That being grumbled, did I like the damn thing? Yes. It aspires to a kind of Barry Lyndon feel, and it gets there. Rachel Weisz, as Sara Churchill, is at least as much fun as Glenn Close in Dangerous Liasons. Actually, more so, because Sara Churchill has a depth to her that the Marquise de Merteuil does not have. Churchill doesn’t play the game just to be Queen of the Mountain, she actually cares about the politics. She favors the vigorous prosecution of the war with France, even at the risk of her husband, the great general Marlborough. She labors against France just as her descendant Sir Winston would labor against Germany, and for the same reason. Louis XIV was no Hitler, but he was the head of the strongest state in Europe with a habit of bullying smaller states and seeking to make himself the arbiter of Western Civilization. The War of the Spanish Succession was in this respect as epoch-defining as the Napoleonic wars were a century later. And the film focuses on this, brings it right front and center. The script gives Weisz a chance to elevate Sara Churchill from mere schemer to stateswoman.

By contrast, Abigail Hill (Emma Stone) has no interest other than not going back to the scullery. Which, who could blame her, but the cynical disinterest in policy, the refusal to even countenance that her actions will have consequences, is not driven home until the last scene, when it becomes clear what she has bought herself. The ending is dour to the point of being anticlimactic.

But that’s what happens when you try to do history, which gives us very few third-act turnarounds. In real life, the Churchills were disgraced, the war party-Whigs sent packing, and peace with France was negotiated. The Churchills lost, and Anne died a few years later. That was how it was, and the film finds a poignant if irretrievably current way to express that. Peace to all of them, and to the shades of them we conjure up on film, just for good measure.

Mark Steyn on Winston Churchill

I have been sick and busy and sick these last few days, and am currently unable to even describe my current state as “like hot garbage” – barely warmed-over recyclables is more like it. So I’m going to link this one in.

I admit that I have yet to actually watch Darkest Hour, despite having had a SAG screener of it in my house for some time. Of late watching serious movies feels more like a chore than entertaintment, and at any rate I know that story well enough. Spoilers – we win the war. I’ve been working through The Crown with more interest – Queen Elizabeth comes through like a woman who’s absolute sense of dignity and decency seems increasingly at odds with the world around her. The episode that unveiled the nigh-treasonous behavior of Edward VIII post-abdication makes one thank heaven that the world shifted to put plain unpretentious George VI and his plain unpretentious daughter on the throne.

But I also admit that watching the trailers for Darkest Hour put a lump in my throat as almost nothing else can. When Steyn writes that Churchill was a real-life superhero, who stood down a monster and saved the world, it comes pretty close to being the truth:

In May 1940 Chamberlain remained the most popular politician in the country, and the citizenry, having watched the Nazi hordes consume a continent, was by no means eager to serve as the last line of resistance to what seemed an inevitable fate. The vox populi did not stiffen Churchill’s resolve; he stiffened theirs.

For a few lonely months the world desperately needed one man to tell Adolf Hitler that the free nations had not yet begun to fight, and in saying it, make it true. Churchill was that man, and the debt the world owes him can never quite be paid.

 But, at its heart, the story of one long-serving politician in the spring of 1940 is the definitive example of the Great Man theory of history. It was his very particular qualities – ones that did not necessarily serve him well in peacetime or in other wars – that changed the course of human events.

In any case, Read the Whole Thing.

World War I May Finally Start Getting It’s Due

Here’s a book with a great title: Mud, Blood, and Poppycock: Britain and the Great War. From the description:

Laced with dry humour, this will overturn everything you thought you knew about Britain and the First World War. Gordon Corrigan reveals how the British embraced technology, and developed the weapons and tactics to break through the enemy trenches.

Now, I’ve already come upon the notion that the popular imagery of the Great War – idiot generals guilelessly sending millions of men to die because they didn’t grasp what machine guns did – was sketchy. Norman Stone’s World War One: A Short History conveyed very clearly that the generals understood that the tactics of the 1880’s had been rendered obsolete, but that knowing what would not work was not the same as knowing what would work. Thus, the entire war can be seen as coming to terms with war in the age of mass machinery, and all the grand “blunders”, such as the Somme, Passchendale, Verdun, were experiments to see how the victory could be obtained. That’s small comfort to the millions who died, but the generals were trying their very best to find the way forward.

The Russian general Brusilov hit upon something in his 1916 Eastern Front campain, and the Germans were generally successful (until they weren’t), but it was the British Army that found the solution. They essentially invented what became known as blitzkrieg (concentrate forces in a narrow space, penetrate that space with armor, rush through the gap) in the summer of 1918. The Germans studied British tactics at the end of the First War to discover the tactics that would upend the world in the Second.

Interestingly enough, the U.S. Army came away from it’s brief experience in WWI with an entirely different lesson: that of the primacy of artillery. Artillery has always been an American specialty, going all the way back to the war against Mexico, but after WWI the Americans became fairly obsessed with it. As a consequence, the Americans and more and better heavy guns than any of their opponents in the Second World war, and those guns were integrated into the tactical space better (via the innovation of allowing Forward Observers to call upon “all guns within range”). This gave the Americans an edge against both Germany and Japan – which was needed, as our infantry training vis-a-vis both armies was inferior, and our armor always a generation behind the Germans. (Source: Dirty Little Secrets of World War II)

 

Richard III was Attacked All At Once, Died Swiftly

No horse was going to save him.

Read the whole thing, as it’s very interesting, and jibes with what accounts of Bosworth I have read.

Of course, it bears pointing out that Richard fought like a mad boar at Bosworth, killing Henry Tudor’s standard bearer and very nearly getting to Henry himself before he was surrounded. Also, no contemporary source records the “My kingdom for a horse” line. Some traditions declare his last words to be “Treason!” but it’s entirely possible that he was given no chance to say anything at all.

 

Madness in Great Ones Must Not Unwatched Go.

“And his eyes have all the seeming of a demon that is dreaming…”

I don’t know if it’s my subconscious ruminating on the debased state of American politics, or just the idle curiosity to re-watch a train wreck, but I found myself viewing, for the second time, the 1979 film Caligulia with Malcolm McDowell on Netflix. I only got an hour or so into it before I decided that it was just as bad as I remember it, and finally put my finger on the reason for its badness. It’s not the sets, or the script, or the acting. It’s not even the dull pornography. It’s that the film has no moral center. There is no one, not one person in this refuse worth caring about. Monsters and fools alone abound.

Well, it worked some kind of perverse inspiration in me, because I suddenly have the yen to write another book. I want to get elbow-deep into this boyish monster, and plumb the human depths of his tyranny. I’ve lined up the books I must read:

  • Suetonius’ Lives of the Twelve Caesers, because it’s been sitting in my bookshelf and I’ve never had the chance to really dig into it.
  • I, Claudius and Claudius the God. I’m familiar with the BBC series, of course, but I’ve got old copies of this, too. Been wanting to read them.
  • Camus’ Caligulia play. A friend of mine read this in college, and gave me the gist of the twist: Caligula, far from being insane, succumbs to the ennui of supreme power and seeks to “make the possible likely.” I like the premise of that, and it’s about time I read it.
  • The obligatory myth-debunking scholarly biography.
  • Possibly Allan Massie’s Tiberius: The Memoirs of the Emperor.

I’m interested chiefly in the widely-reported notion that Caligulia believed himself a god. The Roman Empire was a time of great religious flux, as the old Republican pantheon gave way to thrilling cults from the East: Isis, Mithraism, Manichaeanism, Gnosticism, and Christianity. So I’d like to shift this most notorious emperor from Crazy to Self-Deifying.

This will naturally be a long project. Check this space for details.