Ironically, the heroes of this big Russian patriotic tearjerker are Ukrainian. That is what you call people who were born in Ukraine and subsequently lived there. Of course, at the time of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union, but not by choice. Regardless, a Ukrainian fireman saves the USSR from utter and complete catastrophe in Danila Kozlovsky’s Chernobyl 1986 (a.k.a. Chernobyl: Abyss), which opens tomorrow in New York.
Played by the director himself, Alexey Karpushin was a hot-shot Tom Cruise-ish fire-fighter, who just resigned from Pripyat fire department, so you know what that means. He hoped to finally figure out his relationship with local hairdresser Olga Savostina and the son he only recently learned he had. Instead, he rushes to extinguish the fires at Chernobyl reactor #4, in what turns out to be a doomed effort.
Unfortunately, the little Savostina ragamuffin was passing by the plant just when the initial explosions happened, so he received a dangerous dose of radiation. Karpushin tries to be there for the family that is not ready to acknowledge him, but he soon decides the best thing he can do is leverage his expertise to secure a place for his son in the special charter to Switzerland, for advanced radiation treatment. Wait a minute, the USSR sent priority patients to Switzerland instead of their close ally, the medical Mecca of Cuba? Surely, that can’t be right?
Kozlovsky’s 1986 absolutely pales in comparison to HBO’s gripping Chernobyl miniseries, in which writer-creator Craig Mazin masterfully documented every corrupt and incompetent step that led to the disaster and the iffy response, as well as the subsequent cover-up. In this case, co-screenwriters Elena Ivanova and Aleksey Kazakov call out some of the Party malfeasance (because how could they not?), but ignore the Soviets’ systemic efforts to obscure the truth.
Instead, we get plenty of the torturous (to watch) Karpushin-Savostina romance. It takes a full half-hour before disaster finally strikes, which is way too long in a disaster movie. Kozlovsky and Oksana Akinshina are both big-name Russian romantic leads, but they share less sexual chemistry than Trump and AOC (who are obviously both turned on by raw power). By the way, according to wiki, Akinshina referred to feminism as “the destiny of ugly women,” so it sounds like she got the memo from Russia’s boss of bosses.
1986, but it never fully establishes the step-by-step chain of events and the potential scale of devastation the brave Ukrainians sacrificed themselves to prevent. Essentially, the film just tells us Karpushin have to open an underwater valve. The HBO miniseries is an obvious and unflattering comparison, but Setsuro Wakamatsu’s excellent Fukushima 50 also does a much better job explaining the ill-fated chain of events at the Fukushima Daiichi power station and humanizing the employees and first responders who prevented much worse from coming to pass.
It is weird to see so many Russian films getting distribution in recent years (many of them quite jingoistic), considering the media was hyperventilating over the regime’s nefarious influence (with legitimate cause) during the Trump years. Yet, Biden just waived Trump’s sanctions on the Nord Stream 2 pipeline—and the lack of media outrage is deafening. Maybe allowing the same kind of management team that oversaw the Chernobyl plant (technically, it was called V.I. Lenin Nuclear Power Station) spigot-like control over Europe’s access to energy is not such a great idea. If nothing else, Kozlovsky’s 1986 is a timely reminder of Russia’s checkered history of utility management. Not recommended as cinema, Chernobyl 1986 opens tomorrow (9/24) in New York, at the Cinema Village.