Reviews Television

HBO’s CHERNOBYL is a Grim, Yet Sympathetic Portrayal

Chi-tsung analyzes the now highest rated television series of all time.

On April 26th, 1986, reactor 4 of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant suffered a catastrophic failure and exploded—killing two of its workers immediately—it would then go on to claim countless more lives with radioactive pollution in the following years. “Chernobyl”—no longer just the name of a town—becomes synonymous with the most severe nuclear accident in history. 33 years later, show creator and writer Craig Mazin (Scary Movie 3, The Hangover Part II) brings the harrowing tale to television in a 5-part docudrama miniseries under HBO and Sky’s co-production.

HBO prides itself in melding high production value with brilliantly directed and performed TV shows. Prestige television is HBO’s bread and butter, but when the final season of the record-setting medieval low-fantasy series Game of Thrones fizzles out in a whimper, Chernobyl garnered more and more word of mouth in the aftermath of the controversial conclusion to HBO’s flagship—it stepped up to the plate and delivered the deeply engrossing cinematic experience Home Box Office promised.

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Chernobyl on fire – source: HBO

Chernobyl takes the form of a horror movie—the nuclear disaster is an ominous menace that preys on unsuspecting civilians. Instead of recounting the events that led up to the critical moment, the show starts with a bang, literally! The power plant lights up from a distance while Lyudmilla Ignatenko (played by Jessie Buckley), wife of firefighter Vasily Ignatenko (Adam Nagaitis), groggily walks back into her bedroom, before the shockwave of the explosion finally reaches the apartment complex and breaks the night’s peace. 

Vasily and the rest of the firefighters arrive at the scene and spray the flaming building with water. “Do you taste metal?” one firefighter asked, none of them knowing the danger they are in. Chernobyl starts on a serious note, and spends little time before reinforcing the tone and begins ramping up the tension. The beast is once again on the prowl. The radiation coming off the exposed reactor core and the debris scattered around the scene begins to take a horrifying toll on the first responders. In one scene, a firefighter casually picks up one particularly irradiated piece of debris, only to have his hand’s skin burned off by the radiation. 

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Vasily Ignatenko – source: HBO

The atmosphere of Chernobyl is at times almost Fincher-esque—the deliberate camera movement nurses and builds the slow-boiling uneasiness while the insidious radiation works its ruinous power on the guilty and the innocents alike—both defenseless against its effects. Hildur Guðnadóttir’s haunting soundtrack is a blend of the metallic groan of the power plant and alarm whines; it’s an impressive feat of oppressive immersion. In a few of Chernobyl’s most intense moments, the show forgoes soundtrack altogether, opting for drowning the audience in the anxiety-inducing clicking sound of dosimeters.

Chernobyl is very grim and oftentimes heartbreaking. Audience weak of stomach may find certain graphic scenes off-putting. The effects of radiation poisoning are horrifying, to say the least. A red face (from radiation burns) and nausea are the first telltale signs, and with extended exposure, it gets much worse from there. Production designer Luke Hull described the show as his most disturbing research to date, and Daniel Parker, head of makeup and prosthetics, said: “It’s the worst way to die.” However gruesome Chernobyl can be, it never veers into the territory of “misery porn”. The show always remains respectful and sympathetic to the victims of Chernobyl (some of which are still alive today). 

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Miners conscripted to Chernobyl – source: HBO

Craig Mazin wants to honor the unsung heroes and victims of the disaster. The same sentiment extends to the showrunners’ dedication to historical accuracies (to the best of the show’s ability).  That said, certain creative liberties were taken to ensure the viability of the miniseries format—Emily Watson’s scientist character Ulana Khomyuk was such a creation—devised to represent a team of scientists who aided the cleanup operation. Chernobyl is also very educational; if by chance the top-notch drama could not impress you, at the very least you would come out of it having learned more about the science behind nuclear fission, and the effects of radiation. 

There is a somber, poetic beauty to Chernobyl despite all the horrors. One heart-wrenching funeral scene of Chernobyl’s victims left a deep impression. The bodies of the deceased were so contaminated that they couldn’t be buried conventionally, instead, they were placed in body bags, then in wooden boxes, before finally being welded shut inside zinc-lined coffins. The families weep as a concrete truck backs up to the graves and pours its content down. Concrete is to Soviet Russia as marble is to the Ancient Greeks. It’s the symbol for progress and industry—everything the Soviet Union stands for. The gentle swirls of cement that are slowly covering the metal coffins is pure irony.

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Inside the control room – source: HBO

The show presents the event from various point-of-views, down from the liquidators walking the streets of Pripyat, up to the men in the power plant control room, many of whom could be found in Nobel prize laureate Svetlana Alexievich’s Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster, a collection of firsthand accounts from the disaster. By the end of 1989, there were close to 590,000 men and women conscripted to the effort. Among them, Jared Harris’s Physicist Valery Legasov and Stellan Skarsgård’s Boris Scherbina are the closest things to the protagonist of Chernobyl, as the two men were instrumental in leading the cleanup operation. 

While the entire the cast did a tremendous job, the duo is most deserving of praise. Scherbina, a boorish (but nuanced) career politician, is an excellent pairing for Legasov’s bookish candidness. Their friendship that bloomed over the course of 5 episodes is a highlight of the show. Legasov serves as the voice of reason in the madness that is the Chernobyl disaster, and the steadfast Khomyuk becomes his conscience—the scientist’s duty to do the right thing.

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From left to right: Scherbina, Legasov, and Khomyuk – source: HBO

The imageries of hazmat suits and quarantine wards evoke the impression of a zombie outbreak. But unlike the walking dead, radiation cannot be stopped with firearms and barricades, no matter how many firearms and barricades the Soviet Union deploys. A even more sinister horror than the nigh-unstoppable gamma rays is the bureaucracy which made the catastrophe possible, and continues to exacerbate the situation. A nuclear disaster such as this is an unprecedented event, but that isn’t the sole reason why early efforts to extinguish the fire are disastrous: the utter lack of transparency and the constant urge to downplay the situation by the authorities get in the way of doing what’s right. In fact, one of the first measures the official undertook was to quarantine the city, instead of evacuation.

The official position of the State is…a global nuclear catastrophe is not possible in the Soviet Union.” But what if the impossible does happen? Time and time again, the officials depicted in Chernobyl deceive or sidestep without addressing (or unwilling to address) reality. It’s both infuriating and chilling. The constant denial and the prevalence of double-think sometimes border on parody, making Armando Iannucci’s 2017 black-comedy The Death of Stalin the perfect companion piece to the show. But the biting political commentary is not only directed at the USSR (or communism), but the world at large. Show creator Craig Mazin cited the current global War On Truth as his prime inspiration for Chernobyl. Dismissing the lesson as purely an authoritarian issue would be missing the point.

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Lyudmilla in Pripyat hospital – source: HBO

Chernobyl is an incredibly intense and bleak experience filled with memorable moments, and an excellent balancing act of dramatization and staying true to the sacrificial spirit of those who gave their lives to preventing a global extinction event. A powerful piece of entertainment with significant educational values, the miniseries is one of the best HBO has to offer.

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