Review: HBO’s Chernobyl Radiates and Reflects
When I heard that HBO and Sky UK were making a series called Chernobyl, knowing nothing about it, in my imagination I thought about a story set in an alternate universe sort of like Man in the High Castle which takes a fictional twist on history. Fortunately, the actual series is better than my idea for the premise. Real events can be more incredible than fiction. Chernobyl is a five part mini-series on the nuclear plant disaster that occurred in April 1986. Centered on the people dealing with the aftermath of the explosion, Chernobyl is a compelling and terrifying historical drama.
Chernobyl’s story is told from a number of perspectives including several focal point characters. Lyudmilla’s (Jessie Buckley) husband is a firefighter responding to what is initially said to be a roof fire at the nuclear plant. She and other townspeople gather to gaze at the beautiful glowing fire from afar. Unbeknownst to them they are watching the air react to the exposed uranium core. Lyudmilla’s story shows the personal perspective to this disaster.
For the Soviet officials perspective, nuclear physicist Valery Legasov (Jared Harris) and high ranking politician Boris Shcherbina (Stellan Skargard) are sent in to clean up and contain the radiation. Based on real people, Valery and Boris’ working relationship is a well-written arc which adds nuance to their characters. Boris is a stern man, he’s focused on getting the job done. Valery is concerned with how much of the truth he can reveal to the plant workers and other crew being exposed to the radiation. Both actors are solid in their roles as is Emily Watson.
Hundreds of miles away, nuclear physicist Ulana Khomyuk (Watson) discovers high levels of radiation at her lab. She goes to Chernobyl to offer her expertise and aid in the investigation. While in a prominent role, Ulana is a composite character that is mostly designed to service the story.
On a visceral level, Chernobyl is gripping. In certain scenes, I’m telling characters to run away from the radiation as if I’m watching a horror movie. It’s absolutely insane the level of danger that these men put themselves in, sometimes unknowingly, to try to contain the disaster. The production quality is top notch and on point, right down to the crackling sound of the dosimeter which adds to the overall tension in suspenseful moments. There’s also a feeling of dread when one crisis is seemingly averted only to discover another potential catastrophe. Because Chernobyl does a good job at laying out the information and establishing the stakes at every decision point, I readily feel the emotional weight and personal toll these characters endure.
Even though Chernobyl is “based on a true story” there is dramatic license taken as outlined in “Why HBO’s Chernobyl Gets Nuclear So Wrong“. To separate fact from fiction it might be beneficial to read other news articles or perhaps check out a Chernobyl documentary after watching the series.
There are several narrative threads that the writers emphasize. Chernobyl is a human-made disaster. When lies stacks upon lies, like falling dominoes, the consequences ripple out in devastating ways. As portrayed on the series, the Soviet Union is highly secretive to the world and hides information from its own people. The KGB monitors Soviet officials resulting in people self-censoring important information. To combat the lies, it takes forthright individuals to truthfully speak up to prevent other Soviet nuclear reactors from suffering the same fate. At the same time, the Soviet society puts the needs of the collective ahead of the individual. Without the many individual sacrifices, the Chernobyl disaster could have been so much worse.
In five episodes, Chernobyl covers a lot of ground. The subplots add different perspectives which help Chernobyl to round out the story although other viewers might prefer to focus on the primary characters. The measured pace adds to the bleak disaster – horror movie vibe. It took me a couple of episodes to use to the pace. For a satisfying and chilling drama, Chernobyl is a recommend mini-series