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Nuclear Russian Roulette: A Review of HBO’s 'Chernobyl'

Available on the streaming service HBO Go, the five part HBO miniseries Chernobyl is one of the more compelling, must-watch TV events of this first half of 2019. Don’t be surprised if it’ll figure heavily in the TV nominations come award season, starting with the Emmys in September. When I first heard about it from my eldest son, Quintin, my initial reaction was to wonder whether it could still be interesting for me. The incident did happen in 1986, the era of weekly publications such as Time and Newsweek, and I recall devouring the reports on the nuclear accident, and how the westerly winds had carried the clouds of radiation and contamination onto Scandinavia and beyond. 

 

 

So my concern was what would the execution be like, how would heightened drama be evoked, when we're talking recent history — and a good number of viewers would know what the outcome of the event had been. Well, Writer Craig Mazin and director Johan have to be commended for finding ways to frame the disaster, and creating something eminently watchable and still thrilling.

 

Given there isn’t much to dispute in terms of the sequence of events, the severity of the accident, and how it was the first of such magnitude, what the creators behind Chernobyl do is examine the human element — from one point, that would be the denial and cover-up that went on at all levels; and secondly, concentrating on the scientists who despite threats and having to submit to the State, fought for the truth, and to keep even bigger numbers of death by radiation from happening.

 

 

One central character in the historical drama is nuclear physicist Valery Legasov (Jared Harris), and he beautifully captures the unenviable plight of the scientific community — what to do with empirical facts when they run counter to the official Government stance that there can be nothing wrong with Russian reactors and technology. Tasked to accompany the Deputy Prime Minister for Energy Boris Shcherbina (Stellan Skarsgård) to Pripyat, the Ukraine town closest to the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, the two soon become the closest we get to “heroes” in this grim story of ruthless decisions, disinformation, and a misplaced sense of omnipotence.

It’s no spoiler to mention that the series opens with Legasov’s suicide and the damning tapes he left behind. This is after all a story about how human lives are made dispensable and worthless in the name of honoring and protecting the State’s reputation. For dramatic convenience, there’s even a character fictitiously created, that of Ulana Khomyuk (Emily Watson), who acts as a composite of the many scientists who were warning about the safety factors of these nuclear reactors, and worked alongside Legasov to find a solution after the accident occurred. 

 

 

More than specifically thinking Russia or Chernobyl and 1986; the miniseries tackles such issues as responsibility to the public, and the folly of weighing world reputation and perception against human lives. That this is still a lesson that nations today have to learn is hopefully not lost on the viewers. It’s no surprise to learn that certain political parties in Russia have lambasted the series, calling for it to be banned in their country — calling the series a gross misrepresentation of facts, and what happened. 

 

Chernobyl is one of the more interesting TV-produced miniseries of 2019; and its well worth seeking out. There’s a tight, highly competent ensemble cast at work, and it’s history dramatized in a manner that’s considerate, measured, and cautionary.

 

 

 

Photos from HBO