The most striking thing about "Chernobyl: The Final Warning," a world-premiere movie on cable tonight, is that it's your basic, familiar American docudrama -- except it was made largely in the U.S.S.R., with a mixed cast of Soviet extras, English mid-level players and a couple big American movie stars.
Further, it is a remarkably critical replay of the April 26, 1986, reactor explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, whose ultimate toll in death and injury is still being argued. The movie premieres at 8 p.m. on the TNT basic service, with three immediate repeats at 10 p.m., midnight and 2 a.m. (Additional plays are scheduled April 23, 24, 27 and 28.)
The film seems an important social/cultural milestone, for it is impossible to imagine it could have been made this way even 10 years ago.
Based on the book "Final Warning: The Legacy of Chernobyl," by Dr. Robert Gale and Thomas Hauser, the movie blames the "event" (as the nuclear industry terms accidents) on human error. As dramatized here, in a scene filmed in the control room of another Soviet nuclear plant, operators continued to conduct a test demanded by higher-ups despite equipment warnings that the reactor was not stable.
Soviet officialdom is also indicted for a slow response. Evacuation of surrounding residential areas was delayed and early communication with the rest of the world about the plume of radioactive emissions drifting toward Europe was limited.
However, the movie also is quite praiseworthy of the medical response of Soviet physicians -- workers involved in early emergency treatment are among the victims of Chernobyl because of their exposure to radiation -- and adopts as a sub-theme the notion that Chernobyl was an important development in Premier Mikhail Gorbachev's efforts toward glasnost.
For the movie dramatizes the unprecedented cooperation of American doctors such as Gale, played by Jon Voight, with their Soviet counterparts in treating Chernobyl's victims. American industrialist and longtime Soviet friend Armand Hammer (played by Jason Robards) is also credited with vital intervention, and sensational reporting by some American media organs is at least mildly criticized.
As a drama, "Chernobyl" is merely OK. It suffers from the usual fault of movies with a message by adapting characters and dramatic action to convey the central idea until stiffness and predictability occasionally result.
But Voight, making his TV movie debut, is pretty good, and the ubiquitous Robards is as watchable as always. English actress Sammi Davis is emotionally persuasive as the pregnant wife of a Chernobyl firefighter, and Annette Crosbie (also British) is especially noticeable as the chief Soviet physician.