HBO’s excellent five-hour mini-series is absolutely heartbreaking to watch. Brilliantly structured and anchored by great performances from Jared Harris, Emily Watson, Stellan Skarsgard and more, ‘Chernobyl’ revolves around one of the worst man-made catastrophes to date. The Chernobyl disaster was a nuclear accident that occurred on 26 April 1986, when a safety test went very, VERY wrong at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, near the city of Pripyat in the north of the Ukrainian SSR. This occurred largely due to the incompetence of the team, a total jerk in charge of the team and lies at the highest level of the government. Think about this this way, one of the roofs of the plant after the explosion had a radiation level of 12,000 roentgens (the unit for radiation) – twice as much as the Hiroshima bomb every hour! This level is so high that is one was to stand on that roof, in full protective gear, for 2 minutes, they would die…It was then considered the most dangerous place on the planet.
The show is relentlessly bleak but has a remarkable cumulative power. The show’s layered depiction of how an entire nation had been shaken by a nuclear event becomes more and more intense with each episode. However, my favourite aspect of the show was the fact that it wasn’t a polemic against nuclear energy, against communism in general or against Soviet Union – that would be too easy – but instead Craig Mazin’s creating is a polemic against lies. The cost of lies.
When you look at the scenes of the city, nothing seems wrong. When we think disasters that take thousands of lives, we may think about some form of natural disasters, explosions, wars, but apart from the initial explosion, the screen is always so calm. You cannot see anything but death is all around. The radiation spreads and people, unaware of this, simply walk into their death. Everything may seem quiet to us but the thought of the radiation in the background haunts us throughout the series. Just the long shots of the blowing wind, the water dripping and the rustling of the leaves are enough to remind you that doom is on the horizon.
The pilot episode is one of the best pilots I’ve seen on television. The show starts off with an explosion and the rest of the episodes describe the measures taken to prevent the bad from becoming the worse. We are immediately introduced to the characters in the sphere of what happened that day: the scientists and engineers in charge of the power plant, the firefighters who run into the fire to protect those trapped inside, the scientists in charge of the clean-up and the government officials, some of whom swoop in to devise cover stories to prevent humiliation to the Soviet Union. It’s absolutely appalling to hear the true story of the event and why it ever occurred. It’s unbelievable, how low human’s can fall simply to protect their reputation.
The acting is otherworldly; Harris, Skarsgard and Watson have all, arguably, given the performance of their careers. Jared Harris, underated for so many years, plays the role of Valery Legasov, a key Soviet nuclear physicist who is the first to realize the situation at Chernobyl and is appointed in charge of the cleanup. With a great opposition from the other government officials – including David Dencik version of Gorbachev – he convinces them of his theory and counters 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. Skarsgard plays Soviet Deputy Prime Minister Boris Shcherbina, who has for years been a mouthpiece for his government, but realizes that this catastrophe requires for him to be more. He undergoes a change of heart, understanding the unpredictability of life and one’s responsibilities towards it. Emily Watson acts as Ulana Khomyuk, a tribute to all the scientists and workers, who staked their lives to contain the disaster at Chernobyl.
The show doesn’t only look at the event through s scientific, methodical perspective but through a very human, emotional lens as well.With the aid of make-up to show the impacts of the radiation, we get to experience this event through different perspectives: through the pregnant wife of a firefighter who ran into the flames of Chernobyl, a man assigned to kill the radioactive animals in the area and of course the through the lens of Legasov and Boris. Yes, this sounds blindingly depressing but Renck and writer Craig Mazin have an extremely artful approach for their production, preventing it from becoming extremely depressing. The beautiful amalgamation of the human and scientific elements makes it logical and tactile.
There are so many moments that will make you cover your eyes: the notes of despair in Harris’ voice as he works to solve a problem that may not only be unsolvable but also likely to kill all those who try. All of them face a foe that will take all those down with it.
Chernobyl marks another successful addition to HBO’s list of miniseries. It may not be as crowd-pleasing as other award winners but it is just as accomplished. Renck manages to pull out entertainment from something as dry as the physics behind a nuclear meltdown and lies, hidden by the government. The show is not only about an event but also about deception, determination, courage, intellect and lies. The last episode, Vichnaya Pamyat, is an effective combination about what happened on the day of the meltdown and the hearing for the scientists responsible. One-by-one as more and more blue cards are removed, the intensity increases. Harris’ monologue goes straight to the heart, the calmness in his voice, contrasted by the atmosphere surrounding him. The show leaves you in shock, making you understand life’s cold truth, a rewarding end to a remarkable piece of art.
– Aryamaan Dholakia
Aman’s Rating – N/A Aryamaan’s Rating – 92/100