Harrowing and Inspiring, CHERNOBYL 1986 Recounts the Disaster and Response — with a Dash of Fiction

Chernobyl 1986 is new on VOD and screening theatrically in select markets, 9/24.

In April 1986, the USSR (now Ukraine) experienced one of the most horrific man-made disasters of all time, when Chernobyl’s Nuclear Power Plant’s #4 reactor exploded, irradiating the region and forcing the evacuation of the people populating the area, including the small but thriving city of Pripyat, now one of the world’s most famous ghost towns.

The new film Chernobyl 1986 (aka Chernobyl Abyss in some markets) tells the story of the disaster, but channeled through the eyes of some fictional characters (similar to, say, Titanic or Pearl Harbor). The film’s story mixes historical fact with a fictional plot elements, which, it turns out, is a sword that swings both ways. It’s an excellent drama with interesting characters and a touching central story, but also a slight air of inauthenticity that comes out of the knowledge that while the film’s tragic events are true, this telling of them is not.

That said, I was stuck by just how alive the story feels. I’ve watched many films and videos and consumed other media, both fictional and non-fiction, dealing with the Chernobyl aftermath, which has always been a fascinating study to me. But seeing Pripyat as a thriving place where families live and play, and businesses hum with activity, really puts things into a different, and human perspective that’s simply not as perceptible in watching urban explorers tour the desolate ruins.

The film’s story centers on firefighter Aleksey (Danila Kozlovsky) and hairstylist Olga (Oksana Akinshina), former sweethearts who unexpectedly bump into each other again in Pripyat. As old feelings com rushing back, Aleksey immediately grasps the second chance and tries to rekindle their old romance — Olga, a single mother, is guarded about opening herself up to get hurt again.

Forgetting the true historical backdrop for a moment, this fictional relationship is very real, raw, and emotionally complex, and even though it’s not “true”, it rings true. I truly felt great empathy and affection for these characters, rooting for their love to blossom.

When the #4 reactor explodes, Aleksey, who knows the complex inside out, finds himself at the center of the effort to prevent the compromised and irradiated power plant from superheating itself into an even bigger catastrophic event which would consume not only the immediate region, but most of Europe.

This element is both wonderful storytelling in a fictional sense and the biggest offense in historical terms, placing a fictional character at the center of the disaster response: a real event in which real-life heroes sacrificed and staved an apocalypse.

Many modern action films use external alien threats or comic book gimmicks to set up extinction-level stakes where the world hangs in the balance. Chernobyl 1986 tells of a case where these stakes were real. I was also reminded of another event and recent film, the Fukushima nuclear disaster depicted in Fukushima 50. The films are quite similar in their approach, showing how a small team of dedicated professionals risked — and in many cases sacrificed — their lives to prevent nuclear holocaust.

Because really, it does beg the question of whether nuclear power is worth the almost incalculable risk of things going wrong, when going wrong means irradiating entire continents. Two events, 25 years apart, where we almost blew up half the world? Those are terrible odds.

HBO’s acclaimed Chernobyl miniseries has doubtlessly reinvigorated interest in, and knowledge and awareness of, the events of the Chernobyl disaster, and I think it’s something that everyone really needs to be knowledgeable about. Whether you were fascinated by the HBO series and are looking for more to watch about the event, or perhaps looking for another telling that’s a Russian production in the native language, Chernobyl 1986 fits the bill.

I don’t usually pay much attention to other reviews or chatter when reviewing a film, but I noticed while logging it on Letterboxd that it has a rather middling 2.5 average score. I’d encourage you to ignore the negativity and give it a shot. I found the film deeply affecting, and really my only reservation is the fictionalized nature of certain elements — but even these work very well within that context, providing some real humanity. Moreover the film is completely upfront about it, acknowledging the fictional elements in the opening titles. I was a mess by the end of the film, but certainly richer for having seen it.

Cinema Village, New York City
Emagine Palladium, Birmingham, MI (Detroit market)
Gateway Film Center, Columbus, OH
Screenland Cinemas, Kansas City, MO
Charlotte Film Society, Charlotte, NC

Further reading:


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