Review: Chernobyl: The Lost Tapes Aims to Understand a Massive Disaster Through Newly Uncovered Sources

Filmmaker James Jones (On the President’s Orders, The Riots 2011) has a history of making documentaries about events of the past that have an almost deafening relevance in the present day. His latest, Chernobyl: The Lost Tapes, a portrait of a great lie told by the then-Soviet government to its people about an incident with global consequences, seems especially damning, especially since Jones draws a direct link to the great nuclear disaster in world history and the fall of the Soviet Union.

With no commentary on the catastrophe outside of a handful of recently recorded interviews with survivors of the events portrayed, the doc uses newly uncovered archival footage as well as period news reports that lay out the explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear reactor (in then-Soviet Ukraine), and the subsequent parallel attempts to clean up and cover up the true damage done, due in large part to faulty design. The footage exists because the Soviet government sanctioned it, believing it would chronicle the heroic effort of scientists, engineers and the military to contain the problem and minimize the damage done to people and property. Instead, it shows the exact opposite, with most of the citizens of this once beautiful, prosperous city unknowingly being bombarded with monumental, often lethal, levels of radiation.

The views of the reactor destruction are unprecedented and horrifying, with the red hot fire of the burning core peering out of the otherwise blackened wreckage like the Eye of Sauron. There are even white flashes that appear periodically on the footage that one witness explains is the result of radiation hitting the cameras. It’s a sickening feeling watching a film in which you know the people who shot it likely died from the experience or at best, got seriously ill. It’s even more unnerving watching people casually evacuate the city days after the explosion like they’re going on an unexpected vacation. Those feelings will likely stick with viewers for the duration of the movie, since it’s a succession of bad decisions, ill-equipped rescue workers and salvage teams, and a government (led by Mikhail Gorbachev) that cares more about not looking bad in the eyes of the world than asking for help from outsiders, even as fallout could be detected as far away as Scandinavia.

Outside of footage from the power plant itself, Chernobyl: The Lost Tapes gives us gruesome looks at the medical devastation the meltdown caused, from burns caused from radioactivity to birth defects in children and local livestock. Thankfully, we are spared images of children born with what are described as fish-like lower halves, but other mutations are shown. This was a disaster that ultimately became too big for the Soviets to completely cover up (although the official death toll remains at 37, the actual number is likely closer to 200,000), leading to international outrage and ultimately demands for the truth by the country’s own citizens, particularly in Ukraine. As a result of the lack of information at the time, the Chernobyl disaster of 36 years ago is one of the least understood and detailed manmade disasters on record, and by simply piecing together footage from the time, this film opens up the truth in powerful and substantial ways that few accounts have or could.

The film is now available on HBO and HBO Max.

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Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet
Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for
Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and
filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a
frequent contributor at /Film (SlashFilm.com) and Backstory Magazine.
He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently
owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for
the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer
for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the
city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.