Imagine this scene: A guilt-stricken official who worked for President Donald Trump sits down late at night to confess his agony. “What is the cost of lies?” the weary official says into a tape recorder, sitting in his dark kitchen. “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. What can we do then?’’
This confession is not an artifact of the Trump era, however — it is the opening of “Chernobyl,” a masterful HBO drama that turns history into prophecy. The five-part series begins with a Soviet scientist, played by Jared Harris, describing his dismay about the culture of secrecy and lies that led to the near meltdown of a nuclear reactor at Chernobyl in 1986, followed by the cover-up of the full consequences of the catastrophe. After taping his confession, the scientist, Valery Legasov, feeds his cat, stubs out his cigarette, steps onto a chair, and hangs himself.
The theme of lies — the destruction of truth by a regime devoted to self-preservation — pervades “Chernobyl” in a way that is wildly relevant to America in the age of birtherism, Sarah Sanders, and “very fine people” who are neo-Nazis. The corollary is unmistakable. At one point, an engineer who is partly culpable for the nuclear accident tells an investigator that her search for honesty, and his desire to avoid a firing squad, are futile. “You think the right question will get you the truth?” he says. “There is no truth. Ask the bosses whatever you want. You will get the lie, and I will get the bullet.”
“Chernobyl” can be considered the best political film of our times because it illuminates a core problem of the Trump era: the nonstop jackhammer of falsehoods that are drowning out what’s true. The risk is that Americans who are inundated with moral rubbish from the White House and Fox News may lose the will to care about the difference between right and wrong, echoing what happened in the Soviet Union. When everything becomes gray and sluggish, there is no battle worth fighting.
The craft behind “Chernobyl” is transporting — the dialogue, the visuals, the acting, the music. It excels as a horror movie, action film, political thriller, documentary, and fable. You hardly notice the show’s gutting message up to the finale, which is like a dagger you don’t sense until it pierces your heart and you gasp. But the creator and writer of the show, Craig Mazin, has been, like his central character, explicit in saying what it means. “We are now living in a global war on the truth,” Mazin told the Los Angeles Times. “We look at this president who lies, not little ones but outstandingly absurd lies. The truth isn’t even in the conversation. It’s just forgotten or obscured to the point where we can’t see it. That’s what Chernobyl is about.”
The right-wing reaction to “Chernobyl” has proved the point Mazin is making about America and denial. Conservatives complimented the series at first, for what they believed was its portrait of the mendacity of “leftism.” But things quickly changed.
You should watch CHERNOBYL.
It's remarkable and its lessons are absolutely relevant today.
Leftism is contamination.
— Kurt Schlichter (@KurtSchlichter) May 15, 2019
When Mazin noted that “Chernobyl” was also about the contamination of Trump, they replied that Mazin didn’t know what he was talking about, even though he created the program they had just been celebrating. There was a particularly bizarre exchange that started with Stephen King. “It’s impossible to watch HBO’s Chernobyl without thinking of Donald Trump,” the novelist tweeted.
It's impossible to watch HBO's CHERNOBYL without thinking of Donald Trump; like those in charge of the doomed Russian reactor, he's a man of mediocre intelligence in charge of great power–economic, global–that he does not understand.
— Stephen King (@StephenKing) May 30, 2019
Then Dan Bongino, a Fox News contributor who has run for Congress three times and lost each time, insisted the “Hollywood elitists” were wrong, very wrong.
Mazin, who has a hearty 130,000 followers on Twitter, didn’t hesitate to correct the record. “Chernobyl was a failure of humans whose loyalty to (or fear of) a broken governing party overruled their sense of decency and rationality,” he replied.
To the right-wing critics, it didn’t matter that Mazin had devoted years of his life to researching the disaster and making the miniseries, which has received an immense amount of praise. Even though his detractors would probably have a hard time locating Chernobyl on a map, Mazin had no standing, in their opinion, to make any claims about its meaning. The truth was what they said it was. The Federalist even ran a story that congratulated the program for warning about the evil of China and North Korea; the headline was “HBO’s ‘Chernobyl’ Drives Home the Deadly Perils of Statism.”
In the end, “Chernobyl” is about more than the cost of political lies: It is about climate change and the fact that we cannot deceive our way out of the laws of science. That’s what happened in the Soviet Union: A design flaw in the reactor at Chernobyl had been identified by some researchers, but their findings were treated as a state secret that could not be shared with the people who operated the plant. Today, scientists have proven that our planet is heating up and that a catastrophe lies ahead if we don’t reduce emissions. But most of the people who are in charge of operating the planet — our political leaders — are ignoring the warnings, particularly in America. Just last week, the Energy Department described fossil fuels as “molecules of U.S. freedom,” and of course, Trump plans to withdraw the U.S. from the Paris climate agreement.
“To be a scientist is to be naive,” notes Legasov, the hero of the show, in his final recording. “We are so focused on our search for truth, we fail to consider how few actually want us to find it. But it is always there, whether we see it or not, whether we choose to or not. The truth doesn’t care about our needs or wants. … It will lie in wait for all time.”