HBO Max’s new documentary tells the story in the words of those who lived through it (and many who didn’t)
A couple of decades after the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl, interest in the event was suddenly renewed when urban explorers started sharing their fascinating travelogues of the eerie, deserted ruins of the exclusion zone on the internet, leading to an explosion of Chernobyl in popular culture — suddenly it was in the zeitgeist, appearing in movies, video games, numerous documentaries, and on television, exploring the event and its aftermath, as well as fictional applications of the setting.
What sets apart the new documentary Chernobyl: The Lost Tapes, now available to watch on HBO Max, is that it’s composed mostly of primary resources: archival footage from the events, and interviews — both old and new recordings — with people who lived through it. Much of the footage is making its public debut.
Personal stories of panic, tragedy, and loss are shared. We hear from cleanup crews of firefighters, miners, and “liquidators” who fought tirelessly around the clock to stave off further disaster, most of them at the cost of their lives. A pregnant wife who watched her husband’s body slowly disintegrate as it was consumed by radiation sickness, and later learned that she was shielded from exposure by her unborn child — their baby did not survive.
An entire community was suddenly uprooted, evacuated on the promise that they would be able to return in a few days: it was a lie. Homes, property, and even pets were left behind.
And at a higher level, a sad and infuriating display of corruption and political maneuvering that hastened the independence movement of the Ukraine and the end of the Soviet Union. Events which are, even today, very much in the eye of the world as Russian hostilities are dealt against the Ukrainian people in a pathetic and immoral display of international bullying, war-mongering, and media manipulation.
The film describes Soviet attempts to cover up and downplay the events, putting forth a show of strength and falsifying data surrounding the radiation sickness which consumed the Chernobyl community. And moreover, failing to address the demonstrably real flaws in their nuclear program.
Like most tellings of the Chernobyl disaster, this is a harrowing and sometimes very difficult watch, but a necessary one.
It’s estimated that some 200,000 people lost their lives as a result of the Chernobyl disaster.
The official death count remains 31.
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