If you’re one of those who cut ties with HBO following the end of Game of Thrones, you’ve been missing out on one of the best-made, well-acted dramas on TV. An account of one of the worst nuclear disasters in history, Chernobyl pulls no punches in recounting the events of April 1986 in meticulously-researched detail.
On April 26th, 1986, a little before 1.30 am, the unthinkable happens: While the Ukrainian city of Chernobyl sleeps, a reactor in the local nuclear power plant explodes, releasing massive amounts of radioactive contamination into the atmosphere. The days that follow will prove crucial, as officials and scientists rush to evacuate the city and its surrounding areas while struggling to contain the deadly radiation before it spread all over Europe.
However, as lead scientist Valery Legasov (Jared Harris, TV’s The Crown, Fringe) quickly learns, the Soviet power structure contains many whose interests would be better served by pretending the incident never occurred. Using science as his guide, Legasov butts heads with the Soviet bureaucracy to make them see the validity of his concerns, aided by the initially reluctant Council Minister Boris Shcherbina (Stellan Skarsgård, Mamma Mia, Thor), a lifelong party member who knows that it will take more than facts to get their points across.
Within hours of arriving at the disaster site, the two find their worst fears confirmed; faced between protecting the reputation of the State and preventing the deaths of thousands, if not millions, the two men will be forced to decide where their priorities lie.
BEGINNING AT THE END
The story opens with an irresistible hook, not in the form of a nuclear reactor exploding, but, rather, the final moments of one Valery Legasov. In a lonely apartment characterized by peeling linoleum and overflowing ashtrays, we have just enough time to observe the man committing his memoirs to cassette tape before ignominiously hanging himself. In doing away with our ostensible lead character in the first ten minutes, one is compelled to find out just how and why how he got to that point. By the time the nuclear reactor explosion lights up the Chernobyl sky, the audience has already invested on an intellectual level, and things only get more downbeat from there.
AN UNEASY PARTNERSHIP
The bulk of the story centers around the efforts of Legasov and Shcherbina, working with thousands of unsung heroes in a race against time to stem the spread of radiation and prevent the damage from escalating into an even greater catastrophe.
As Legasov, the bespectacled Harris serves as Chernobyl’s voice of reason and a continual source of exposition, with his character constantly having to explain the current situation to those around him. In contrast, Skarsgård’s character is presented as pragmatic, but ultimately reasonable, the middle ground between the party line and the stark realities of their situation. Together, the duo put in exemplary performances, credibly portraying their characters’ initial uneasy working relationship as it evolves into something resembling respect.
THE IMPOSSIBLE MISSION
Inconceivable as the disaster may be to comprehend on its own, it is nothing compared to the sheer scale of the clean-up operation carried out to secure the accident site. Under the direction of Legasov and the authority of the Soviet Union’s then-General Secretary (and future president) Mikhail Gorbachev (David Dencik, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy), Shcherbina uses every resource at his disposal, to the tune of emergency personnel, soldiers, pilots, miners, construction workers, neutralizing chemicals, and equipment, including robots.
All told, hundreds of thousands of personnel took part in the operation, from workers clearing the plant’s shattered roof of radioactive debris in 90-second shifts, to a team tasked with wiping out any and all potentially contaminated wildlife – including pets left behind by the evacuated. It is only through the efforts of those brave souls that Europe was spared greater casualties, and to see it in such detail is absolutely chilling.
THE QUEST FOR TRUTH
Even as emergency personnel and plant workers were being airlifted to Moscow Hospital #6 with severe radiation poisoning, Soviet leaders attempt to convince their citizens and the world at large that everything is under control. Determined to learn the truth, Legasov asks nuclear physicist Ulana Khomyuk (Emily Watson, The Book Thief) to discover the cause of the reactor explosion before the relevant witnesses die from radiation exposure.
Over the course of her investigation, Khomyuk discovers the trail of gross negligence that led to the accident. As the days wear on, and the witnesses die off one by one, she crosses paths with Lyudmilla Ignatenko (Jessie Buckley, Wild Rose), the wife of first a first responder fireman. As a woman forced to watch helplessly as her husband withers away, Buckley’s character puts a human face on the tragedy.
While Khomyuk represents the dozens of scientists who helped Legasov in the search for answers, her plea for him to tell the world comes from a genuine place. When she asks him to tell the truth, she isn’t just speaking for the 300,000 people forced to abandon their homes to escape the radiation, but the untold numbers that died as a result of it.
CIRCLE OF ACCOUNTABILITY
To date, estimates of deaths resulting from the Chernobyl disaster range from 4,000-93,000, but official numbers remain at 31-54. Aside from the bureaucratic machinery that complicated everything as a matter of course, there was the veil of secrecy and surveillance that the Soviet government used to keep its citizens in line. Even Legasov and Shcherbin aren’t spared from scrutiny, their every move being monitored by KGB minders for any signs of subterfuge, the “good of the State” used as a catch-all for the lies used to conceal the truth. With the KGB keeping a stranglehold on all information going in and out of the Iron Curtain, any implication that the Soviet nuclear industry could be inferior to the West’s was considered unacceptable.
The technical aspects of Chernobyl are impeccable, with award nominations for production design, costumes, and visual effects practically guaranteed, across the board. But what really stands out in the presentation, perhaps about the entire series, is how understated it is in its storytelling. As written by showrunner Craig Mazin (Identity Thief, The Hangover II, III), every sequence carries with it an inescapable feeling of dread; when you see regular people lined up on a bridge, happily watching the Chernobyl blaze as radioactive ash rains down on them, you do so with the very real, sickening realization that every one of those people is probably dead now.
Make no mistake, this is a terrifying narrative, complete with the concerned scientists, stubborn politicians, and innocent bystanders found in any good disaster movie. But in presenting events in a matter-of-fact manner, with a minimum of embellishment, Mazin and his team have made something altogether more disturbing (and compulsively watchable) than your average thriller.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Based largely on eyewitness testimony from the book, Voices from Chernobyl, by Nobel laureate Svetlana Alexievich, Chernobyl the series makes for a gripping viewing experience that needs no sensationalism to get its point across. Spanning five uncompromisingly tense episodes, the series may not quite fill the Game of Thrones-shaped hole in viewers’ hearts, but it succeeds at proving that HBO still has what it takes to produce engaging, quality programming.
Given that the truth about Chernobyl has been surrounded by speculation, doubletalk, and outright lies for so long, the fact that we are seeing anything on the subject at all, presented with this degree of sincerity and verisimilitude, is nothing less than remarkable.
All images courtesy of HBO
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