‘Chernobyl: The Lost Tapes’ review: James Jones’ HBO documentary presents heartbreaking window into nuclear disaster

British director James Jones is fluent in Russian, which certainly came in handy as he waded through the extensive documentation of the government’s response to the 1986 nuclear power plant accident in then Soviet-controlled Ukraine and its aftermath. .

“The relationship to the truth was complicated”, recalls one of the survivors, while another, very poetic, observes the radiation and its devastating effects: “The enemy was everywhere and all the time, but he was invisible .”

“Chernobyl” features a range of voices, ranging from those who were then schoolchildren to Soviet officials and factory personnel. This material is fashioned into a methodical ticking of the initial response, describing the slowness with which vital information reached the local population, the evacuation of residents and the reluctance to bring bad news to Moscow.

In addition to the testimony, Jones has access to remarkable footage, such as helicopters unsuccessfully launching sand into the reactor from above, smiling “liquidators” ignoring the threat to their health before going to clean up the site, and news accounts at the time insisting that the risk was exaggerated by Western media seeking to embarrass the Soviet state.

With regard to this last concern, as the film soberly notes, there has never been a full account of the lives lost: the official number of Chernobyl-related deaths remains at 31, compared to an estimated 200,000 who died at the aftermath of the tragedy. And this despite the very real fears on display within the government that the accident would cause massive casualties and widespread contamination.

“Chernobyl: The Lost Tapes” isn’t as readily accessible as scripted drama, and the reliance on grainy imagery creates obvious limitations. Yet there is a visceral aspect to this, particularly in the cases of cancer diagnosed and the graphic images of birth defects seen in the aftermath of the disaster.

Current events have helped bring Ukraine and the era of Soviet rule back into the headlines, but “Chernobyl” feels timely on several fronts. At its core, the documentary exposes the toxic combination of major tragedy and a highly secretive regime, producing a tragedy that has lingered in the public consciousness in more ways than one.

“Chernobyl: The Lost Tapes” premieres June 22 at 9 p.m. ET on HBO, which, like CNN, is a unit of Warner Bros. Discovery.


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