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HBO’s excellent five-hour mini-series “Chernobyl” ends with the words, “In memory of all who suffered and sacrificed.” It’s a fitting final note for a series that ably pays homage to just those people, from the workers who died in the explosion to those who fought to keep it contained to the scientists who spoke up to make sure it didn’t happen again. Brilliantly structured and anchored by great performances from Jared Harris, Emily Watson, Stellan Skarsgard, and more, “Chernobyl” is relentlessly bleak, but it has a remarkable cumulative power. I found each hour more impressive than the one before it, as Johan Renck’s complex, layered vision of an entire nation altered by a nuclear event becomes more and more devastating.
At first, “Chernobyl” feels incredibly episodic. We meet various characters in the sphere of what happened on April 26, 1986 when a safety test went very, very wrong. There are the workers directly involved in the test, most of them inexperienced and uninformed about exactly what they’re doing, and led by an abusive jerk who pushes them to make mistakes. There are the local emergency responders, like the firefighters who run in to stop the flames, unaware that they’re running to their deaths. And then there are the government officials, some of whom immediately swoop in to devise cover stories to maintain the Russian image around the world, claiming that nothing too horrible really happened even as they know otherwise.
The great Harris, so underrated for years in everything from “The Terror” to “The Crown,” plays Valery Legasov, a key Soviet nuclear physicist who is the first to realize what has happened at Chernobyl, and what it means is going to happen now. What “Chernobyl” captures most of all is the events that happened after the incident to contain what could have been a much worse international disaster. Legasov sees a report of graphite outside the building and knows that the core has exploded, and, after much opposition from officials trying to claim nothing is wrong—including a version of Gorbachev played by David Dencik—is given the freedom to try to contain the disaster. After the meltdown, there were several ticking time bombs related to Chernobyl, including the likelihood of a massive explosion, the containment of the nuclear radiation leaking across Russia, and the fact that it was headed down into the water supply for most of the country.
TL;DR stop whatever you’re doing right now, and watch this show.Seriously, put this on your watch list. Subscribe to HBO Now or add it to your Amazon Prime or whatever, just long enough to watch Chernobyl. And then buy it when it comes out on Blu and watch it again. I cannot recommend it enough. Absolutely stellar work from everyone involved, and a real breath of fresh air after the disaster that was the last season of Game of Thrones, which probably ranks right up there as one of (if not the) biggest disappointments in the history of television.
The writing, the acting, the cinematography, the music and sound design, and the dedication to the authenticity in scenery, props, vehicles, and costumes are all top notch. They went to great lengths to shoot on location in actual facilities that were very similar to Chernobyl and Pripyat, and they didn’t succumb to the typical production shortcuts like, for example, using Huey helicopters to stand in for the Soviets’ own Mil helos that were actually used. You can’t take this sort of attention to detail for granted with big-budget Hollywood films, to say nothing of a made-for-TV miniseries.
Most impressive still, I think, is that they were able to simplify, condense, and even fictionalize certain aspects of the disaster and its aftermath without disrespecting those that took part, and also without disrespecting the audience by overly dumbing it down. Some characters are painted in broad strokes, and some aspects of the historical truth are dramatized for the sake of storytelling, but for the most part the showrunners remain true to the most important facets: the root causes of the disaster, and the sheer determination and will on the part of many thousands of people to deal with the aftermath and prevent an even bigger catastrophe from unfolding, and the suffering they endured as a result. The show doesn’t shy away from some of the more traumatic and terrible results, either, making certain scenes very difficult to watch; the effects of acute radiation poisoning are depicted in all their stomach-churning brutality, as is the soul-crushing task of the soldiers assigned to cull the contaminated animal population of the affected area. It’s not flawless: some lines of dialogue are a bit on-the-nose, and one character in particular is clearly there as a vehicle for the narrative to progress more than for any other reason, but it’s necessary to give people enough information to understand what’s going on while also not overwhelming them with a huge number of intricate scientific details or characters to follow.
Exquisitely paced, the narrative strikes a near-perfect balance between the causes and consequences of the disaster itself, the very human (and very painful) impact on the people who were most affected by it, and the culture of denial, incompetence, and unaccountability that precipitated and then presided over the entire drama. It’s gripping from the first moment to the last, and not a single scene is wasted here. The most damning criticisms are leveled (rightfully so) at the Soviet government, and the culture of secrecy, denial, and finger-pointing that grew up around it. It was a system that existed based on lies, assigning blame, and refusing to accept or acknowledge basic, observable truths and scientific facts simply because they were uncomfortable or inconvenient. It was a system where people could be disgraced, imprisoned, or even killed for saying something out of line with the prevailing narrative. And this is startlingly relevant today, 33 years later, in the western world.
Chernobyl is harrowing. It’s haunting. It’s stomach-churning. It’s heartbreaking. It’s brilliant.
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