Thomas Johnson: The Battle of Chernobyl (La Bataille de Tchernobyl, 2006)

reviewed by Vitaly Chernetsky © 2008

Produced to commemorate the 20 th anniversary of the disastrous accident at the Chornobyl Nuclear Power Plant that took place on 26 April 1986, The Battle of Chernobyl is a made-for-television documentary that seeks to present a detailed account of the events as they happened: the initial confusion, disbelief, and the delayed release of limited and inaccurate information by the authorities, both in the Soviet Union and in Western countries; and the concerted efforts during the seven months that followed to battle and contain the consequences of the accident and to prevent the disaster from escalating. The film seeks to address two goals: to give a detailed timeline of the accident, its initial aftermath, and the efforts during the first seven months that culminated in the construction of the sarcophagus over the destroyed reactor; and to expose the systematic lies and cover-up of the true scope and scale of the consequences of the disaster. The resulting work is in many ways truly powerful and moving, first and foremost due to the amazing archival footage and to the brutally honest description of the events by many of the interviewees, the witnesses and the participants in the liquidation of the disaster's consequences.

Several aspects of The Battle for Chernobyl are truly remarkable, especially the original still photos and film footage taken shortly after the accident and during the initial stages of liquidating the disaster's impact. The filmmakers are to be commended for assembling this footage and bringing it to Western audiences, as well as for convincing prominent historical figures—such as Mikhail Gorbachev, Hans Blix (at the time the head of the IAEA), and some of the military commanders and rank-and-file veterans of the operation—to grant extensive interviews to the film's authors (although the interviewees' tone and take on the facts are at times quite dissonant with the voiceover's interpretive argument). Another excellent feature is a detailed and lucid presentation of the initial accident and its aftermath during the first days and weeks that followed, including a computer animation reconstruction of the original explosion itself.

Some of the film's claims and underlying principles, however, raise a series of questions. Although the voiceover repeatedly alludes to the seven-month period of initial disaster response, the greatest portion of the film deals with the earliest and most difficult stages of that response, and the presentation of the work done in the later months and of the more long-term consequences feels rushed. The film begins to ring inauthentic and shallow when it offers viewers a staged return of a former evacuee to her abandoned apartment in Prypiat' and makes an extravagant claim that the filmmakers' investigation is the first significant exposé of the true scope of the disaster and the attempts at suppressing the full extent of the information about it from reaching the public. At times, the film also becomes a promotion vehicle for the former Novosti Press Agency photographer Igor' Kostin, who was one of the small number of journalists who thoroughly documented the disaster and the initial response to it; coincidentally, on the cover of Kostin's 2006 English-language book Johnson is listed as a co-author. By contrast, the contributions of Alla Iaroshinskaia, the prominent investigative journalist who championed the cause of Chornobyl after she was elected a Deputy of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR in 1989 and who authored several books on the disaster, including one translated into English—Chernobyl: The Forbidden Truth (1995), are really downplayed (although she is given a brief interview appearance). The work of other prominent ex-Soviet investigative authors, such as Svetlana Aleksievich or Iuri Shcherbak, is not even mentioned, nor is the work of Western scholars who have been investigating the disaster and its consequences. Most importantly, with the exception of Kostin, those who shot and preserved the footage of the disaster and the liquidation operation go uncredited in the film. While the voiceover brims with indignation about the mishandling of the accident response and the suppression of information on the true extent of the disaster and its consequences, in alleging a global conspiracy around the issue, in which Western governments supposedly have been complicit, the authors overstate the case and cheapen the true horror of the disaster and the heroism of the “liquidators” —the hundreds of thousands of people who risked their lives to prevent it from becoming an even greater tragedy. Another unpleasant aspect of the film is manifested in the instances of grave mistranslation of interviewees' Russian-language remarks in the English subtitles and the occasional errors in the historical information given (such as the claim that Volodymyr Shcherbyt'skyi, the head of Ukraine's Communist party at the time of the disaster, later committed suicide). The voiceover's exclusive use of “Chernobyl” (rather than Chornobyl), “the Ukraine,” “Byelorussia,” and the generally Russo-centric outlook of the narrative were likewise grating for this reviewer.

To sum up, this film contains an impressive amount of incredibly powerful and valuable archival information, as well as some revealing interviews, but the authors' interpretive stance and the staged footage from 2005 detract from the work's powerful message. One of the excellent elements of the film's promotion campaign is an informative accompanying website about the Chornobyl accident (much more balanced and nuanced in many respects than the film itself) available on the British, Asian, and Australian sites for the Discovery Channel (but, sadly, not on the US one). At the same time, the promotional materials from the US distributor, First Run/Icarus Films, contain several unfortunate errors.

 

VHS Distribution: First Run/Icarus Films. All stills courtesy of First Run/Icarus Films.

Vitaly Chernetsky
Miami University (Oxford, OH)

Comment on this review via the Forum or by sending your comments to the Moderator

The Battle of Chernobyl, France, 2006
Color, 94 minutes
Director: Thomas Johnson
Cinematography: Nicolas Duchêne, Nikolay Goncharenko, Christopher Wood
Phorographs: Igor' Kostin
Editor: Jerome Legrand
Music: Benoît Pimont
Digital effects director: Laurent Simonini
Producer: Hind Saïh
Production: Playfilm (France), in a coproduction with Corbis/Sygma, Guillaume Valabrègue, and the participation of France 3 for Discovery Networks International

Thomas Johnson: The Battle of Chernobyl (La Bataille de Tchernobyl, 2006)

reviewed by Vitaly Chernetsky © 2008

Updated: