Chernobyl (2019) Review

Chernobyl (2019) Director: Craig Mazin

Rating: 5 out of 5.

A meticulously crafted five-part miniseries that first aired on HBO, Chernobyl is a harrowing examination of one of the worst man-made disasters in history. Much of the subject matter was borrowed from Nobel laureate Svetlana Alexievich’s book Voices from Chernobyl which documents previously unheard stories in this tragic saga. With Chernobyl Director Craig Mazin makes a welcome pivot to serious dramatic filmmaking after spending most of his career in the parody film genre, directing such films as Scary Movie 3 and Scary Movie 4.

On October 6, 1986 an explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant suddenly exposes a string of errors which ultimately helps bring about the dissolution of the Soviet Union according to Mikhail Gorbachev. While the initial response to the explosion was to lie, or bury the story and minimize the damage, it soon became apparent that Chernobyl was going to be a public relations nightmare for a paranoid superhero, unearthing the frail bureaucracy of the Soviet Union as people were strongly incentivized to conceal the truth (every character in the show seems to be either fearful of retribution, or else hollow opportunists waiting for their next career advancement upward). The massive scandal brought about by Chernobyl is the price for living in a world of lies.

A show known for its painstaking accuracy, many scenes were actually filmed in Lithuania and inside real working nuclear plants. However, Chernobyl does take some creative license in certain places in order to expand portions of the story. Our protagonist is Valery Legasov (Jared Harris), a scientist from the Kurchatov Institute who is called upon to address the ballooning dilemma at Chernobyl. He is hailed by Soviet chairman council member Boris Shcherbina (Stellan Skarsgård) who is worried about the politics of the situation almost as much as the safety of the people involved. Legasov is joined by Ulana Khomyuk (Emily Watson), a fellow scientist and fictional amalgamation of various historical people as they navigate the shadowy world between Soviet corruption and scientific truth. Together, this trio quite literally holds millions of people’s lives in their hands.

Throughout the show, we get a sense of the steep echoing hallways of the Kremlin while the sneaky agents of the KGB lurk everywhere, ready to blackbag whomever they wish. The totalitarian communist regime is contrasted with the hazy bleak landscape of this region of present-day Ukraine. It suggests a looming sense of dread throughout the series. As such, Chernobyl is a unique exercise in dramatic irony as we in the audience are all-too painfully aware of the sheer devastation this disaster brings, we know the truth long before any characters are willing to accept it, and we watch in vain as scientific warnings fall on deaf ears, like voices crying out in the wilderness.

Perhaps the most painful moments of the show occur when we watch young men wade through the water levels rising in the lower levels of Chernobyl, not knowing that the core has been completely exposed. In a matter of days, these unfortunate souls will be crying out in agony on hospital beds as their skin melts off and their bodies decay to stretched skeletons while their willpower continues desperately clinging to life. We also get a sense of the true sacrifices made by thousands of anonymous laborers, miners, scientists, nurses, and other workers who worked round the clock and risked their lives amidst highly dangerous levels of contamination to mitigate this disaster and prevent it from spreading further into Europe. Of particular note are the gruff working class miners (appropriately played by Scotsmen) who are hired to dig underneath the facility in scalding hot temperatures, often in the nude without the possibility of cooler temperatures and no promise of sufficient compensation. People like these miners are the true unsung heroes. On the flipside, there is no single villain in this show –but rather, the Soviet bureaucracy becomes the central obstacle –its laundry list of errors taking place inside a culture of secrecy and fear is the central tragedy of this crisis. We learn that RBMK nuclear facilities in the Soviet Union were initially constructed on the cheap (unlike in the United States) and they did not even come with stable nuclear containment facilities. In order to maintain an optimistic public image, these failures were heavily guarded by a censorship regime in which the Soviets attempted to cover-up the story until Swedish news actually began detecting radiation in the air and the story was revealed to the world. It then became an international crisis which threatened all neighboring countries as far away as Germany.

The ghosts of Chernobyl have continued long past the crisis, itself. Compelled to lie to the world, Valery Legasov later committed suicide, and a series of his recorded tapes revealed the truth of how the Chernobyl disaster actually happened and the lingering structural threats that remained in other Soviet nuclear plants. Thousands of people died as a result of Chernobyl, including deformed newborn children and high numbers of people in the surrounding area dying of cancer. But perhaps one of the most damaging effects of Chernobyl has been a popular fear of nuclear power, itself a renewable source of green energy, regardless of the unique flaws within Soviet plants. Today, the original Chernobyl nuclear plant sits enclosed by a large dome intended to protect the nearby region from radiation for the next century while the plant slowly deteriorates (after one hundred years, another containment facility will need to be constructed). However, the remaining nuclear waste will leave a dangerous legacy for hundreds of thousands of years in the surrounding wooded area, its soils, water, and the nearby urbanized community which has apparently become overgrown –an example of nature unknowingly creeping its way back into this volatile place.  

Interestingly enough, there are no fake Russian accents used in this series, all actors simply speak their native English –something which I appreciated. Another aspect of the show that has stuck with me long after watching is the scene in which the first responders’ clothes are all heaped into a pile inside a basement due to high radiation levels. To this day, those clothes still reside in the basement, untouched and decaying, while they continue to emanate high levels of radiation some four decades later.  

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