Mannerisms Maketh Man

Casting choices can define the outcome of historical adaptations. When it comes to issues of appearance and performance, there’s a fine balance in achieving a convincing performance – which factors should be prioritized for authenticity?

By Daniel Rose & Serena Ypelaar

The Mindful Rambler was always going to feature dialogue posts – it was just a matter of time. And now here we are! This article was born halfway into a deep discussion the two of us were having about historical casting choices. Do actors need to look like their historical counterparts to convince an audience, or is it the performance that matters most? We each had some interesting – and mostly opposing – views, and you can read our discussion below. 

SVY: To get straight into our standpoints on this issue, I’ll come right out and say that while performance obviously matters to me, appearance matters just as much, if not more. I’m a very visual learner and I like to be fully absorbed into an adaptation – if an actor doesn’t really look like the person they’re meant to be portraying, I have trouble buying in. It places a bit of a barrier between myself and the film/show. But I know you have a fascinating and absolutely valid perspective on this topic too. 

DR: For the longest time, I shared the belief that actors should physically resemble the historic figures they have been cast to play. This changed with Frank Langella’s fantastic performance as former President Richard Nixon in Frost/Nixon (2008). Even though Langella did not particularly look like Nixon, his uncanny portrayal of Nixon’s mannerisms and way of speaking was astonishingly accurate. As a viewer, I felt transported to 1977, with Langella’s performance pulling back the curtain on a person and period that I did not live through. To me, an actor’s ability to convey the intricacies of a figure’s mindset and historical context is just as important as “looking” the part when it comes to selling the viewer on an historic piece.  

Frank Langella (left) as Richard Nixon (right) in Frost/Nixon. Photo: Pinterest

SVY: For sure, I agree that without mannerisms and attention to detail, so much of the person’s essence is lost. I think it’s a fine balance – if an actor doesn’t already look like their subject, makeup is now so sophisticated that a lack of resemblance can be easily remedied. For instance, Christian Bale was transformed completely into Dick Cheney in VICE (2018). Some say heavy prosthetics hamper performance, and the same can be said for screenwriting: if a screenplay does a feeble job of interpreting a real-life person’s temperament, it might not always translate on-screen depending on what the actor has to work with. For instance, I previously wrote about Zac Efron’s uncanny casting as serial killer Ted Bundy; Efron’s performance was excellent but the script was weak. With many variables in historical adaptation and the complexity of human personalities, it’s challenging to get right. But viewing is a passive activity, so it can help when much of the interpretive work is done for me. How do you look past outward appearances when you’re watching things? 

Amy Adams and Christian Bale as Lynne and Dick Cheney in VICE. Photo: Through the Silver Screen

DR: I think you raise some good points – Bale’s transformation in VICE was astonishing, I’ll admit. That said, when I watch a movie about a real-life figure, or even any old period piece, I consider more than just how one character looks. Ideally, the setting and costumes paint a picture (pun intended) of the aesthetic of a time period. By including tiny details such as fashion choices and products that have since been discontinued, films draw on memories and shared experiences on a subconscious level. By creating an environment that “feels” familiar, the viewer is transported into a world that does not reflect the current era. A great example is the film First Man (2018), starring Ryan Gosling. The camera spends a great deal of time showcasing “space age” technology, including analog dials on flat steel machines, alongside more mainstream 1960’s design choices, such as wood panelling and garish wallpaper. I could almost feel some of the costumes through the screen, as actors eschewed polyester blend for scratchy wool and one-hundred percent cotton. I honestly could not tell you if any of the actors resembled the real-life Apollo 11 crew – but I was utterly convinced by how the film framed them. 

Colin Firth (left) and Jared Harris (right) respectively, both as King George VI. Photo: Slate

SVY: That’s worth noting too. Our familiarity with the figure being portrayed will influence our convictions in terms of whether the likeness and portrayal seems authentic. I’ll now bring in an example of a key struggle I face when I’ve seen a lot of pictures and/or constructed an aura of a historical figure in my mind. There have been a couple of portrayals of King George VI lately, in The King’s Speech (2010) and television series The Crown (2016-). Both actors, Colin Firth and Jared Harris respectively, look nothing like the late British monarch. Both conveyed aspects of his character through their performance, but to me their visual appearance separates me from complete absorption in the portrayal because I know irrevocably how Bertie actually looked. Similarly, I’ve delved so far into Jane Austen’s biography and world that seeing Anne Hathaway play her in Becoming Jane (2007) seemed a bit beyond belief. I can definitely still enjoy a production on these occasions, but I just can’t fully embrace the actor as a true embodiment of the figure. Perhaps it’s because I’m a highly visual learner, but something holds me back!

Anne Hathaway as Jane Austen in Becoming Jane. Photo: Film Affinity

DR: I think we’ve identified some ways in which an actor looking or not looking like an historic figure can either help or hinder an audience member’s engagement with the subject matter. Regarding my stance, I want to echo the sentiments of Chernobyl (2019) stars Jared Harris and Stellan Skarsgård. Flummoxed that they were cast to play figures they bore no resemblance to, both actors concluded that stripping the focus away from physical similarities allowed director Johan Renck to hire performers whose talents could help construct a portrait of life as it was in the Soviet Union. The success of the series changed my entire perspective, and allowed me to re-evaluate how other historic films draw the viewer into the paradigm on display. All that said, as someone who agreed with you until recently, Serena, I respect your position!

SVY: Same to you, Dan! It’s been fun bandying about, and I can definitely say that while I’m attached to the idea of resemblance, I do agree that poor acting is by no means a satisfactory trade-off for the elusive goal of physical likeness. In terms of historical interpretation, I’m looking forward to seeing what Hollywood does next so we can keep discussing these principles.

Review: A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

Last week Bretton and Serena attended an advanced screening of A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, starring Tom Hanks as Mister Rogers. Your friendly neighbourhood Ramblers discuss their impressions of the film below.

By Bretton Weir & Serena Ypelaar

Bretton

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (2019) isn’t just a biopic of one of the greatest personalities of many of our childhoods, but a continued learning opportunity, especially for those of us who grew up with the show, to reflect on how times have changed, how we have changed, and the transcendence of kindness, compassion, forgiveness and understanding. True to its source content, the delightful, formative and accessible children’s program Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, the film tackles questions around family and relationships — and how we manage relationships as they become more complex — into our adulthoods. 

Released in the wake of the 2018 documentary, Won’t You Be My Neighbor, which chronicles the trials and triumphs of the real-life Mister Rogers, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood takes a different narrative approach. Focusing instead on writer Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys) as he struggles to write a magazine profile about Mister Rogers, Lloyd must also deal with personal relational baggage that comes with being an adult. True to form, Mister Rogers acts as a guiding force and helps Lloyd embrace his inner demons and become a better human being.

Tom Hanks as Mister Rogers was a delightful homage to the kind and caring personality that is Mister Rogers. Hanks’ vocal cadence was masterful. He had the listless soothing quality that Mister Rogers came by so naturally.

What could have been a very standard, cookie cutter biographical feature film proved to be an exciting and, at times, surreal ride. The story isn’t about Mister Rogers, proper, but the universality and long-lasting effect Mister Rogers, his program, and his life-lessons have on us all these years later.

Tom Hanks stars as Mister Rogers in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (2019). Photo: Lacey Terrell

Serena

“If it’s mentionable, it’s manageable.”

One of the most memorable lines from A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood also comes from the real Mister Rogers himself and still holds relevance today. Societal conventions seem almost to promote the suppression of emotions, but Mister Rogers proves that it’s possible to be both rational and emotional — at the same time. Tom Hanks’ Rogers drives that point home through his calm affirmations and bald statements of fact, which he delivers during moments of earnest emotional reflection.

The film is not what I expected. In place of a syrupy timeline of Mister Rogers’ rise to popularity, we instead glimpse the career of an established Mister Rogers and his effect on those around him. The best quality of the film is its simplicity — it doesn’t ask for anything except our undivided attention, which is what the real Fred Rogers always had to offer. The result of this ever-present mindfulness is that the viewer must turn inward to their own experiences and emotions, just like Matthew Rhys’ Lloyd Vogel. When was the last time we felt angry? What did we do about it? In those moments of honesty we become Lloyd, and it feels like we are being counselled by Hanks-as-Rogers.

Given the subject matter, it’s fitting that we saw the film on International Kindness Day. The script excels in that it doesn’t try to be over the top; its message is quiet but marked by conviction. There were moments when I could hear a pin drop in the cinema, as well as moments when I couldn’t help but shed tears. The fact that my expectations were so divergent from what we actually got was a highlight; it felt almost like a raw therapy session. “The most important thing to me in the world right now is my conversation with Lloyd Vogel,” Hanks-as-Rogers says in one scene where the two are on a phone call. That statement captured the essence of Mister Rogers so well that it sparked memories of why we found (and continue to find) his show so comforting. He accepts us as we are.

While certainly comforting, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood dives deeper than nostalgia. It celebrates the legacy of a caring and understanding man while promoting the emotional intelligence that is healthy for people of any age.

You Just Know When a Song is ‘Peaky’

Soundtracks are integral to the overall feel of a television series. The music in BBC’s Peaky Blinders has left such an impression on viewers that it even spawned a music festival earlier this year, demonstrating how stylistic details convey mood in storytelling.

By Serena Ypelaar

Warning: this article contains minor plot details from Seasons 1 to 4 of Peaky Blinders. However, it does not include spoilers from the recently aired Season 5.

“They’re still not playing it,” I grumble as the opening credits take up the screen.

It’s a Sunday night and I’m watching the Season 5 finale of Peaky Blinders with my siblings. In this case, the “it” refers to Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ brooding “Red Right Hand”, the theme song for the BBC television show starring Cillian Murphy and Helen McCrory.

An example of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ “Red Right Hand” in the opening sequence of Peaky Blinders.

It seems my indignation is here to stay, as the show producers seem to have abandoned the use of “Red Right Hand” altogether in the later seasons. In Season 1, I could always depend on the track’s clipped tones to signal my absorption back into early 20th century Birmingham. By Season 3, however, we started getting covers of the song instead of the original. And now in Season 5, we’ve lost the Red Right Hand altogether. It’s become so strongly associated with the show that it feels disorienting not to hear it at the start of each episode, which is a testament to one aspect of Peaky Blinders I can never stop thinking about: the music.

The curation of a soundtrack, especially during montages and in the opening and closing credits of a television show, can drastically transform how a story comes across. Through music we receive guidance on how to feel when watching: the selected songs convey emotion, which in turn sets the tone for a scene. I’m sure I’m biased because my music taste consists primarily of rock music, but I’ve always felt that Peaky Blinders nails it on the music front. Tracks are hard-hitting when they need to be in order to illustrate the gritty underbelly of Birmingham in the 1910s, 20s, and now 30s.

Take this scene, for example, in which Tommy Shelby (played by Irish actor Cillian Murphy) attempts to carry out a murder, set to “Bad Habits” by The Last Shadow Puppets.

It’s almost like someone plugged my Spotify into the show, as so many scenes feature my favourite bands and artists!

Today, an official Peaky Blinders soundtrack is being released, with music spanning the series’ five-season run so far. Musicians such as Queens of the Stone Age, Arctic Monkeys, Royal Blood, Frank Carter and the Rattlesnakes, The White Stripes, David Bowie, Radiohead, Anna Calvi, and Black Sabbath have been featured on the show and likewise on the soundtrack. The series balances edgy hard rock with softer, more languid choices to illustrate vulnerability; the result is endearingly human.

“The Peaky Blinders story and the music we use are twins, born at the same time. It would be difficult to imagine most of the pivotal moments without the soundtrack.”

Steven Knight, Creator

In many instances, the music drives the action forward in Peaky Blinders. It’s often used to drown out the rest of the sound, building suspense and capturing the tone of any given scene. The tracks are well-selected as tools of characterization, such as Arthur Shelby’s attack on Luca Changretta’s men in Season 4. Frank Carter and the Rattlesnakes’ “Devil Inside of Me” is overpoweringly apt, but we also know Arthur isn’t unilaterally bad – his internal struggles are laid bare with the help of the soundtrack.

Watford-based Frank Carter and the Rattlesnakes pound out the showdown between Arthur Shelby and Luca Changretta’s men. Warning: scene contains profanity and violence.

As if that weren’t enough, this past September saw a music festival crop up as another means of hyping the new season: The Legitimate Peaky Blinders Festival. A lineup of artists whose music was played in the television series was (flat)capped off with secret special guest Liam Gallagher of Oasis fame (or rather, notoriety). Fans dressed up in their best tweeds and three-piecers to attend the festival in none other than Birmingham.

“You just know when a song is ‘Peaky’. The artists are outsiders. They have resisted the tyranny of the mainstream, shall we say?”

Cillian Murphy

If you’d told me that a television series had enough weight behind it to justify an immersive music festival, I’d never have believed it, but it really did happen, with cast members present. The organizers even hired hundreds of actors to start brawls onsite amidst the live performances of musicians who had one thing in common – being on Peaky Blinders.

John Shelby (Joe Cole), Tommy Shelby (Cillian Murphy) and Arthur Shelby (Paul Anderson) are the Peaky Blinders triumvirate (with Polly Gray, not pictured, as their Queen, of course). Photo: Esquire

I’m not sure what this tells us about how people in the United Kingdom and beyond have adopted the Peaky Blinders as part of popular culture today. But I sure am glad that a real-life history has been reanimated and acknowledged with such vigor through artistic interpretation, and aided by a killer soundtrack. Yes, the Peaky Blinders were a real gang, and a terrifying one at that. Yet the television series and its corresponding music has put the story on the radar in a strangely favourable way – by order of the Peaky Blinders.

Kindness Among the Unkind: Penny Dreadful and the Art of Adaptation

Showtime’s short-lived horror drama Penny Dreadful embodied the very best of Victorian Gothic. The show’s investment in literature proves that the best adaptations are unafraid to honour their origins. 

By Adriana Wiszniewska

As we discussed earlier this month, the Victorians were much more than their stodgy reputation leads us to believe. Victorian society was slippery and grey, invested as much in the supernatural as the natural. It was, after all, a time of great upheaval. And out of that shadowy underlife emerged some of the most iconic Gothic monsters.

Do you believe there is a demimonde, Mr. Chandler? A half-world between what we know and what we fear? A place in the shadows, rarely seen but deeply felt?

Penny Dreadful, “Night Work” (1×01)

While Gothic literature had its heyday in the late eighteenth century, the genre underwent a massive resurgence in the Victorian era. The old forms of eighteenth-century Gothic were updated to reflect the anxieties of a society teetering on the edge of modernity. It’s remarkable just how many Gothic novels were published in the final decades of the nineteenth century, including classics like Joseph Sheridan le Fanu’s Carmilla (1872), Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886), Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890), Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897), and Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw (1898).

Among this slew of new horror fiction were penny dreadfuls, cheap, sensational, serialized stories that were looked down upon not just for their lurid subject matter but also for their mass popularity. Which brings me to Penny Dreadful (2014-2016), a TV series that took its inspiration from all of the above.

Episode 101
Eva Green is mesmerizing as Penny Dreadful‘s Vanessa Ives. If there’s one reason for you to watch this show, it’s Eva Green. Photo: IMDb

Written and created by John Logan (who also wrote the play Red), Penny Dreadful takes the monster-parts of classic Gothic literature, from Dracula to Dorian Gray to Frankenstein, and stitches them together into one exquisite tapestry of postmodern beauty and terror, blurring the edge between the lurid grotesque of pop culture and the high-minded literary aspirations of high art.

Penny Dreadful wears its literary influences on its puffy Victorian sleeve, shamelessly flaunting its literariness at every step. While most obviously shaped by nineteenth-century Gothic, the show is also knee-deep in Romantic poetry.

sadpoetry
She’s not wrong. Sad monsters too, apparently. Photo: Tumblr

In Penny Dreadful, two strangers can casually recite the same poem to each other from memory like it’s nothing. Victor Frankenstein, in seeking a name for his creation, reaches not for the Bible but for Shakespeare, because “theological connotations aren’t very ‘us’, are they?”

The same could be said of Penny Dreadful. In a world of vampires, werewolves, and witches—a world of senseless death and cruelty—existence seems devoid of the divinity and order that the Romantics saw in nature. As Frankenstein’s monster puts it:

I am not a creation of the antique pastoral world. I am modernity personified. Did you not know that’s what you were creating? The modern age? Did you really imagine that your modern creation would hold to the values of Keats and Wordsworth? We are men of iron and mechanization now. We are steam engines and turbines. Were you really so naive to imagine that we’d see eternity in a daffodil?

Penny Dreadful, “Resurrection” (1×03)

The Gothic is the dark underside of Romanticism, anticipating the bloody monstrous mechanized world that Penny Dreadful knows has already arrived and still haunts us to this day. But the show’s investment in poetry, in beauty and love and kindness among the unkind, shows that there are ways to hold back the dark, even if just for a moment.

That’s why all monsters in Penny Dreadful are secretly poets, the Creature perhaps most of all. Just as his creator reached for Shakespeare, the Creature renames himself John Clare after the poet of the same name  in an attempt to shed his monstrous past. And in the cavernous dark beneath London (a place in the shadows, rarely seen but deeply felt), Clare finds kinship with Vanessa Ives, another damaged person who dwells in the halfway place between light and dark (Vanessa, notably an original creation, is the glue that holds the show together). She looks at his scarred face with warmth and the two trade soft words and lines of poetry:

The characters of Penny Dreadful speak in and through literature, finding solace in poetry when the world offers them only pain and loss and darkness. This is a story about monsters—the scary, bloodsucking, evil monsters, of course. But also the sad, lonely, misunderstood monsters—the broken things—the kind of monsters that shed light on what it means to be human and, conversely, what it means to be cast out from humanity.

Stories make up Penny Dreadful‘s blood and bones. Its characters use literary texts to define themselves, to narrate their lives, to make sense of the world around them. They themselves are texts, living and breathing and endlessly generative. That’s what makes literature so powerful to begin with, and Penny Dreadful understands that better than any show on television.

All Spoken Word Poetry Sounds the Same and I Hate It

In which the forces of the market, the conventions of genre, and the tyranny of the Youtube algorithm conspire to ruin poetry.

By Jenny Lee 

Consider: the hills you are willing to die on say more about you than any other aspect of your personality. In a long, compliant grade-school career, I refused to do two things outright, both times to preserve my dignity (which I prize jealously as a somewhat limited commodity).

The first was basketball. The second was writing and performing a slam poem, because I cannot bear to use Slam Poet Voice in the hearing of any living person.

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From the Poet Voice Hall of Fame: T.S. Eliot prepares to Intone. Photo: Alfred Eisenstaedt / LIFE

Slam Poet Voice, used in what seems like the vast majority of spoken word poetry, differs from Regular Poet Voice (also annoying, also ubiquitous) in its intensity: the Regular Poet intones weightily, while Slam Poet Voice is more of a yelp, delivered in a pitch slightly above normal speaking register and littered with dramatic but unnecessary pauses. Because slam poets perform without text in hand, they can also add baffling gestures. This … is … (sudden hand gesture) POETRY, says Slam Poet Voice, before rapidly listing eight vivid metaphors. Where did this voice come from and why do I hate it?

Slam poetry took off in large American cities during the 1980s and 90s, drawing on hip-hop and spoken word conventions. It is a sport, where teams of poets compete for points awarded by judges. Button Poetry, a poetry production company, started uploading filmed slam poems to YouTube in 2011; you may know their viral recording of Neil Hilborn’s poem ‘OCD’.

It’s these two factors, the standardization imposed by competition and the tyranny of the Youtube algorithm, which make Slam Poet Voice so ubiquitous. As popular works in a genre (see above) are widely consumed, they become widely imitated, and those imitations get their own imitations. Tropes turn to clichés as poets’ idea of a successful poem becomes ossified. We learn to write and perform through imitating the works that made us want to create in the first place.

Slam poets are working within frameworks that literally reward conforming to certain genre standards with cash prizes, YouTube hits, and book deals. They are implicitly under pressure to produce deeply confessional, emotionally intense works, and to perform them like they’ve seen other people perform their own confessional poems, live and on YouTube. One way of performing a text becomes the only way of performing any text, because coming up with a new delivery is often the hardest part of interpretation (ask any actor who’s played Hamlet; there are a finite number of ways to say a given set of words).

‘OCD’ has 14 million hits on YouTube, which is about as good as it gets for a poetry recitation. It’s a lovely, wrenching poem, and also, it is delivered in an iconic Slam Poetry Voice. This is the tragedy of cliché: not that it makes works bad, but that it renders good work ever so slightly more mediocre. By rendering all texts alike, Slam Poetry Voice stands in between the listener and the reception of any individual text on its own merits.

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I didn’t want to put any one hard-working slam poet on blast, so please click through to see Tom Hanks deliver a pitch-perfect Slam Poet Voice about … Full House? on the Tonight Show. 

In summation: competition and capitalism ruin art, avoid mediocrity by consuming as widely as possible, and I was right about that grade 12 English project, sorry Mr. Wade!

Those Spooky Victorians

When remembering an era associated with pomp and circumstance, one mustn’t forget that Victorians also had quite a deep-seated interest and fascination with the supernatural, the macabre, and anything mystical.

By Bretton Weir

Fall is officially upon us as we enter into the dawn of October. With Thanksgiving around the corner and then Halloween shortly after that, I, like many, tend to embrace the changing seasons by outfitting myself in the chunkiest of knitted wool sweaters and trading in the iced coffees for chai lattes. And while pumpkin spice everything fills the stores, I still like to take a few moments and appreciate the chilling air that always accompanies the changing of the seasons. 

An illustration of Victorians toying with their supernatural fascinations. Photo: Ranker

In my many years as an enthusiast of history, I have always had a fascination with Victorian sensibilities; and of those sensibilities, their fascinations with the macabre, the mystical, and the superstitious seem to have a particular poignancy this time of year. In the spirit of the season, a look at the supernatural and superstitious side of this era is in order.

Why Were Victorians So Superstitious?

In order to effectively answer this question, I think it is important to look at the context in which Victorians were living. The industrial revolution was booming and this brought on a period of rapid change and enlightenment; however, with all of this change going on, one could argue that there was a push-pull between existing staunch religious ideals and a new insidious curiosity for the truth. This combination, therefore, often resulted in the manifestation of superstitious beliefs as rationale and reasoning behind “unexplained” events.

Queen Victoria in mourning.
Photo: MySendOff

Also, death was a pretty major part of the life of a Victorian and one would be remiss to not mention that this likely had something to do with the sensibilities of the era. In many instances, the obsession with the macabre can be closely related to the Victorian’s treatment of death and the afterlife — post-mortem portrait photography, for instance, or even retaining locks of hair from the deceased were ways in which people could remember and mourn the passing of a loved one. Not to mention the number of post-death rituals that were to follow one’s passing, notably the wearing of black as a sign of mourning, made famously by Queen Victoria herself as she descended into a four decades-long period following the death of Prince Albert in 1861.

The Style of Victorian Spookiness

Victorian superstitions and interest in the macabre provided not only a framework for explanations of the unexplained, but also a certain aesthetic to the era. For instance, if one were to examine some of the popular literature, e.g. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (published 1818) or Bram Stoker’s Dracula (published 1897), key gothic horror elements and tropes plague the narrative and themes of these two iconic novels.

Victorians Embracing the Macabre

A Victorian Seance. Photo: The Victorian Seance

While sadness and loss were the roots of many Victorian rituals, there was also an aspect of entertainment and curiosity, notably through the use of Ouija boards and partaking in Seances as a means to communicate with spirits beyond the grave.

While the accuracy and realness of these affairs is certainly up for debate, the essence of them are perfect zeitgeists into the era’s fascination with and passion toward the supernatural that can very easily transcend through time and beyond.

“Containing the Spread of Misinformation”: “Chernobyl” and Historic Truth

Fresh off the series’ Emmy win for Outstanding Limited Series, we take a look at how HBO’s Chernobyl makes us reconsider how we think about “The Truth”.

By Daniel Rose

Growing up in the shadow of American media has given me a stilted view of Russian and Soviet history.  From the patriotic cheese of “Rocky IV” to the tales of espionage and intrigue in “The Hunt for Red October”, we have been led to believe that Eastern Europe is the homeland of villains who are dastardly at best and incompetent at worst. Today, some people still believe that the fall of the Soviet Union was the inevitable victory of the “good guys” from the West over the “bad guys” from the East, a gross oversimplification that some media is still eager to support. The tenuous relationship that exists between Western depictions of the Soviet Union and the reality of life in Eastern Europe’s communist bloc is what makes HBO’s Chernobyl miniseries so refreshing.    

Valery Legasov (Jared Harris) and Ulana Khomyuk (Emily Watson) coordinate cleanup at Chernobyl.
Photo: IndieWire

“What is the cost of lies? It’s not that we’ll mistake them for the truth. The real danger is that if we hear enough lies, then we no longer recognize the truth at all.”

Jared Harris as Valery Legasov in “Chernobyl”

Set between April 26, 1986 and April 27, 1987, Chernobyl follows events set in motion immediately following the explosion of reactor 4 at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in Pripyat (now in modern-day Ukraine). The disaster, which exposed hundreds of thousands of people in Eastern Europe to frightening levels of radiation, is framed in a way that balances the truth of the incident with the portrayal of the explosion in Soviet media. Rather than presenting the subject matter in a fully-realized, academic light, the series only provides viewers with as much information as characters on-screen have access to at any particular moment. When plant engineer Anatoly Dyatlov (Paul Ritter) remarks that the level of radiation in the aftermath of the explosion, 3.6 roentgen, is “not great, not terrible”, we are not immediately given context as to what roentgen measures (the exposure of x-rays and gamma rays) or what would constitute an alarming measurement. Even the soundtrack, which maintains a constant sense of unease throughout the six-episode miniseries, leaves the viewer in the dark as to when misfortune will appear on-screen.

The narrative structure adopted in Chernobyl mirrors the cultural climate in Eastern Europe in the late 1980s. After decades of extreme government censorship of the press, the Soviet Union adopted a policy of openness or “glasnost” as part of a larger restructuring, collectively known as “perestroika”, aimed at maintaining parity with the West. In the aftermath of the Chernobyl disaster, however, Soviet media repeatedly under-reported the damage and risk of exposure to radiation, even as Western scientists as far away as Scandinavia reported alarming levels entering the atmosphere. In Chernobyl, viewers are reassured by characters that the situation is under control, contrary to the scenes of fire and destruction on display. It isn’t until later in the series, when expert scientist Valery Legasov (Jared Harris) is introduced, that the scale and impact of damage becomes apparent to the viewer.

What sets Chernobyl apart from other historical dramas is the effort to capture the Soviet Union in this brief moment as accurately as possible. In particular, Chernobyl‘s cinematography does a masterful job at showcasing the cost of the cleanup in contrast to the measured takes of its characters. The portrayal of radiation poisoning turns the viewers’ stomachs, with the camera lingering long enough on victims to evoke sympathy as well as horror. The effort goes beyond the actual series, with the writers collaborating on a podcast that explores each scene in every episode to give viewers insight as to how some events are framed. The filmmakers are open about any inaccuracies in the series, including the fictional character Ulana Khomyuk (Emily Watson), a composite of the many scientists who contributed to the cleanup.

Chernobyl is an eerily accurate representation of a long-changed era. The miniseries does a phenomenal job of placing the viewer in the action, equipping those of us who grew up after the fall of the Berlin Wall with the tools to understand why people acted and thought the way they did in 1986. Outside of time travel, Chernobyl is the closest people can get to life in the Soviet Union.