I’m exaggerating here! Chernobyl has as many as five jokes. What I really mean is that it’s got only one moment of release from tension. It’s only got one joke that performs the traditional function of a joke, aerating the story with a little human warmth. Here it is.
Two dour men are watching a closed-circuit television. They are Valery Legasov (Jared Harris), a nuclear scientist, and Boris Scherbina (Stellan Skarsgård), a powerful Soviet politician. They’re in charge of the cleanup at the Chernobyl site, and in different ways, they’re both slowly dying of it. They are also very close friends, despite having little in common and initially despising each other, as people on television do. The radiation has put the same timer on their lives. It has turned them into twins. They didn’t come from the same place, but they’re going there together, and fast.
On the closed-circuit TV is a robot, a Lunokhod moon rover. Some technicians are using it to knock pieces of radioactive material off the roof of the ruined reactor, a necessary step before the core can be entombed. Here’s the joke (source):
As you can see, it’s not a lot, but the actors do their work. Legasov is absent-minded rather than snide, and Skarsgård puts a curious spin on Scherbina’s response — it’s flat, but just slightly theatrical. For the benefit of the other people in the room, Scherbina reinterprets Legasov’s autistic qualities (literalism, honesty, obsessive interest) into half of a vitriolic double act. He’s not doing it because he’s embarrassed by Legasov; that’s long over. He’s doing it to shield him and care for him. I couldn’t explain how Skarsgård does this, but part of it is perfect conversion of an assist from one of Harris’ great powers: he can generate and control lovability.
When I say Harris’ characters are lovable, I don’t mean it in the sense that we typically mean by “a lovable character,” which is to say a character who aggressively courts the audience’s love. A lovable rogue; a lovable waif. Any writer and actor can create such a character; all you need is to theme them around a specific trait or virtue (vulnerability, humor, an unusual skill), and increase the fuzz around them just enough to stop them from being one-note. Lots and lots of shows and films have characters like this. It is far harder to create lovability in a more complex character, one who invites an extended “and also…but also…,” and it’s even harder to keep a finger on the slider of lovability, inviting the audience to love you exactly as much as the story needs.
This is something Harris is great at, and again, I don’t know how. I’m Isaac Fellman and I don’t know anything about the craft of acting; it’s antithetical to the ways I think as a creative person. But I know Harris’ skill has something to do with the liquid permeability of his face. His great characters have this in common: they can freeze that liquid only at great personal cost. Francis Crozier is an experienced, worldly character who’s still learning to manage the natural rapid spillage of emotion from his brain through his face. Valery Legasov’s face is just the opposite — he’s not holding much in, but his face is dreadfully vulnerable to attack. It’s like water; anything can drop into it. Scherbina’s not alone in his instinct to shield it.
Many of Harris’ trademark tics show his characters failing to manage the traffic in and out of this face: the rapid softening of his easy smile, his stiff protruding tongue in The Terror (which has a life of its own, like the tiny skull inside a Xenomorph’s mouth), and that very symmetrical open-mouthed gape, combined with a rigor-mortis stiffness of the skin, which make his pockmarked face look like an orange that’s just been cut into. Harris is a handsome man, but he cares too much about his work to remind you of it.
He doesn’t have space in Chernobyl to make Legasov intensely lovable in the same way Crozier is. Instead, he turns it down to a faint Geiger tick, and only allows his finger to twitch a little on the slider in two or three scenes. To do otherwise just wouldn’t fit the story. Chernobyl is about communal response to a disaster, and it does what it can to limit its celebration of “great men” — working though it is within the bounds of a very traditional piece of Western storytelling, a five-act structure so classical that it literally has five episodes which are each one act.
I’m both impressed and frustrated with what Chernobyl does with that structure. Normally, I don’t truck with any of that act stuff, and I’m annoyed when I see it showing through a story like bones through a decaying body (I’m sorry — for some reason this kind of metaphor keeps coming back to me after watching Chernobyl). But I have to admit that the execution of it here is perfect, and the flaws it shows are solely flaws in the form.
One flaw is that the form demands an economy of the central characters which, in the hands of writers with standard biases, limits options for women. Emily Watson is also superb in Chernobyl, but her character is a composite of all of Legasov’s close colleagues and staff — many scientists and researchers. The result is a character who can do everything except be emotionally complex, and who plays into a maddening contemporary film trope: the woman who’s the smartest person in the story and also its moral center, yet who exists to support the male hero. In this case, Ulana Khomyuk was literally invented for no other reason. As a result, Watson is given less of a chance to excel than Harris and Skarsgård, who are playing real, researchable men. This is a significant and exasperatingly common writerly self-own.
Another flaw with this kind of film writing is its need for aboutness; in this case, Chernobyl eventually decides that it’s about bullshit, state secrecy, and obfuscation as specific and damning Soviet traits, which is news to me as an American. The show does a lot better when it declines aboutness and explores a practical, step-by-step, almost instructional focus on disaster and recovery. This side of the writing is at its best in the climactic trial scene, in which Legasov functions as a tragic hero brought down by his own war on bullshit, but also as a detective triumphantly laying out his conclusions. This deduction scene is indelible; I barely remember the KGB scene that comes after.
Thinking of Chernobyl as a detective story is also satisfying because of the Holmes and Watson undertones in Legasov and Scherbina. The audible echo of beloved characters helps the actors to transcend what the writing claims the story is about. You can lecture me all day about how Communism cannot be failed, but only fail — I still know humanity when I see it.