“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.

Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile: Portraying a Killer

Zac Efron is playing Ted Bundy in a film. Some think the casting glamorizes the notorious serial killer, despite Bundy’s factual reputation as a deadly yet charismatic deceiver. In this unique case, is it unethical to be accurate?

Warning: contains mention of violent crime and may be disturbing for some readers.

By Serena Ypelaar

“Can we please not glamorize a killer?”

That was the online response from many after seeing the teaser trailer in which Zac Efron plays infamous serial killer Ted Bundy in the upcoming film Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile.

I agree – we don’t want to promote or celebrate murderers. But is accurately depicting a killer the same as “glamorizing” them?

Though the film follows the perspective of Bundy’s long-term girlfriend Elizabeth Kloepfer (Lily Collins), audiences are unsurprisingly fixated on Efron’s portrayal of Bundy.

Joe Berlinger, who also put together the four-part Netflix docuseries Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes (2019), directed the film. The true crime docuseries features audio of interviews with Bundy while he was on death row.

Zac Efron as notorious serial killer Ted Bundy in Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile. Photo: Daily Express

Bundy was active throughout the United States between 1974 and 1978, murdering and raping upward of 30 women in seven states. He escaped from prison twice but was eventually convicted and sentenced to death. He was executed thirty years ago, on 24 January 1989 at Florida State Prison.

I understand where our concerns are coming from. Somehow, there’s a real threat of people becoming infatuated with murderers. On the surface, it doesn’t seem like a great idea to cast a charming, good-looking actor as a depraved killer. What does that impression promote?

The truth is, Bundy was handsome. He was charming. And he used his personality to make people trust him, from his victims – whom he persuaded to accompany him to his car under the guise of disability, usually using a sling or crutches – to people who knew him. Friends, partners (Kloepfer, and later Bundy’s wife Carole Ann Boone, whom he married at one of his trials), and his mother all thought there was no way he could’ve committed such grisly crimes. Kloepfer eventually contacted the police with some vague suspicions, but Bundy still got away with a lot under her nose. His charm inevitably fuelled her denial for years; he was a skilled and charismatic manipulator. Bundy wanted people to believe he was just an average guy, and he maintained the lie of his innocence until just before his execution.   

Zac Efron as Ted Bundy, compared alongside Ted Bundy himself.

So couldn’t it be that Zac Efron is actually the perfect choice for the role? I was skeptical at first, but after watching Conversations with a Killer, I changed my mind. Efron and Bundy even look alike; Efron claims they even have some of the same mannerisms.

I believe that in order to show him exactly the way he was, it’s not really glorifying him. I think hopefully it will make women … be more aware of their surroundings and be cautious. He had different tactics that he used for people to help him get in cars or do things, and in your gut, if you just feel that something doesn’t feel right, just say no.

Kathy Kleiner Rubin, one of Bundy’s survivors, doesn’t have a problem with the film

It’s important for us to try to understand, or at least recognize, how serial killers like Ted Bundy operate. The uncanny ability to convince people around him (as well as those avidly following his case in the 1980s) that he was wrongfully accused is troubling. Bundy himself said in Conversations with a Killer that “people don’t realize that murderers do not come out in the dark with long teeth and saliva dripping off their chin.” They have a chameleon-like talent for blending in (“The Bundy Effect”). If the film depicts this trait in Bundy without sensationalizing details, it won’t be glamorous; it’ll be truthful.

Understanding how serial killers deceive, and people who do evil deceive, really is kind of the theme of the film.

Director Joe Berlinger

We are in control of our own opinions. As long as we, the viewers, are conscientious and aware of context, we can watch films without falling prey to misinformation. It all comes down to critical thinking, which is our responsibility. In a pre-internet era, I can see how a film that seemingly glamorizes Bundy (or shows him accurately as the charismatic liar he was) could run the risk of misleading people. But we live in an age where a quick Google search can set the facts straight, if the movie doesn’t do that to begin with. We just have to make sure we commit to learning ethically and questioning sources.

Photo: Google News

As always, I’ll reserve final judgement on the film until it gets released. I hope it doesn’t simplify Bundy’s disconcertingly complex personality. I kind of think our deep-seated concerns may end up being less about “glamorizing” the killer and more about how the killer was able to glamorize himself. Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile thus has a huge opportunity to be very telling about sinister individuals and their ability to blend in.