'Chernobyl' fails to enlighten


April 22, 1991|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

"Chernobyl: The Final Warning," at 8 tonight on cable channel TNT, is a case of a good idea gone bad -- real bad.

The idea behind the film, which stars Jon Voight and Jason Robards, is to use television as a kind of commemorative calendar, reminding us of important historical events -- the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., for example -- to help us understand and reconcile with them.

The event tonight's film wants us to remember is the explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in the Soviet Ukraine on April 26, 1986. There is disagreement about the number of

deaths directly attributable to the meltdown of the reactor core and the radiation released. But about 600,000 persons received high doses of radiation and will have to be monitored for the rest of their lives, just as survivors of Hiroshima were.

A film that reminds us of this nightmare and helps us makes sense of it -- if sense can be made -- seems like a fine use of TV.

Unfortunately, TNT's production is a mess -- a victim of many of the mistakes and wrong-headed compromises made when real history is dramatized for TV.

There is no real story line here. It's more a series of vignettes of saintliness and suffering in the wake of the meltdown.

One of the saints is Dr. Robert Gale (Voight), a bone marrow transplant specialist from California. When Gale hears of the accident, he organizes an international team of superstar doctors to go to Russia.

Gale is so one-dimensionally wonderful that even Voight, a gifted actor, has no idea how to play him as a real human being. Voight's total depiction consists of smiling an enigmatic Gandhi-like smile for two hours.

Why is Gale played like such a saint? Maybe he really is a saint. But maybe it is because the film is based on Gale's version of events, his book, "Final Warning: The Legacy of Chernobyl."

The other saint is Armand Hammer (Robards), Gales' friend who financed the medical all-star team. Maybe Hammer, who died last December, was a saint as well. But maybe Hammer is depicted as a saint because the film was developed by Armand Hammer Productions or because he paid for Gale's Russian effort.

Worst of all, the film is lifeless. It fails to illuminate the tragedy at Chernobyl and, outside of a few snapshots at the very end, comes nowhere near translating this nightmare into human terms.

An event as important as Chernobyl surely deserves to be remembered. But it deserves better than the dull, tedious and self-serving recollection TNT is offering tonight.

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