‘Chernobyl: The Lost Tapes’ review: James Jones’ HBO documentary presents a harrowing window into the nuclear disaster

British director James Jones is fluent in Russian, which certainly came in handy wading through the exhaustive documentation of the government’s response to the 1986 nuclear-plant accident in then-Soviet-controlled Ukraine and its fallout.

“The relationship with the truth was complicated,” one of the survivors recalls, while another — exhibiting a flair for poetry — observes of the radiation and its devastating effects, “The enemy there was everywhere and all the time, but it was invisible.”

“Chernobyl” presents an array of voices, from those who were schoolchildren then to Soviet officials and plant personnel. That material is shaped into a methodical tick-tock of the initial response, portraying how slowly vital information reached the local population, the evacuation of residents and the reluctance to relay bad news to Moscow.

In addition to the testimony, Jones has access to some remarkable footage, such as helicopters fruitlessly dropping sand into the reactor from high above it, smiling “liquidators” shrugging off the threat to their health before going in to clean up the site, and news accounts at the time insisting that the risk was being exaggerated by Western media looking to embarrass the Soviet state.

As for that last concern, as the film soberingly notes, there has never been a full accounting of the lives lost: The official death toll related to Chernobyl remains at 31, compared to estimates that 200,000 people died as a result of the tragedy. That’s despite very real fears exposed within the government that the accident would cause mass casualties and widespread contamination.

“Chernobyl: The Lost Tapes” isn’t as readily accessible as a scripted drama, and the reliance on grainy footage creates some obvious limitations. Yet there’s a visceral aspect to that, particularly in the cases of cancer diagnosed and graphic images of birth deformities witnessed in the disaster’s wake.

Current events have helped bring Ukraine and the era of Soviet domination back into the headlines, but “Chernobyl” feels timely on a variety of fronts. At its core, the documentary exposes the toxic combination of a major tragedy and a highly secretive regime, yielding a tragedy that has lingered in the public consciousness in more ways than one.

“Chernobyl: The Lost Tapes” premieres June 22 at 9 p.m. ET on HBO, which, like CNN, is a unit of Warner Bros. Discovery.

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