I don’t write a lot of reviews.
I wish I had more time since it’d make filling my blog and websites with content, much easier. But there hasn’t been a lot of media (books, movies, TV) that has really grabbed my attention.
For those who haven’t heard of this HBO miniseries or the event that is its namesake, take a moment and continue reading. It’s worth giving this series a try.
For many of us of a certain age, the name Chernobyl brings up sketchy memories of the nuclear disaster in the Soviet Union, near the city of Pripyat. Grainy black and white TV images of helicopters dumping sand onto the crippled reactor were what most of us remember since the Soviet government was determined to downplay the seriousness of the accident and were very controlling in what information was disseminated to the West.
The TV series starts off with a bang, a literal bang as we witness the explosion of reactor core #4 from the window of one of the city’s firefighters and his wife. From the first moments until the final scene, this series had me. Typically, I multi-task while watching a show, but not this one. Not certain about the show, I initially wasn’t expecting nothing more than another quality HBO series. Something that would be a good time, but forgettable overtime. What I got, was five hours of some of the best damn television I’ve ever seen. And once wasn’t enough. Since the first episode, I’ve watched and re-watched the episodes many times, totally engrossed in the brilliantly written and acted performances.
We see much of the story through the eyes of Valery Legasov, a leading expect in nuclear physics in the country. He is first to grasp the scope of the emergency, but more importantly, it’s through his eyes that we see the true nature of the Soviet government. While plant and energy officials attempt to downplay the event, without any regard to the dangers, Legasov forces the truth on the country’s leadership, even though they don’t want to hear it. He quickly learns that his real struggle is not against putting out the fires in the reactor core and containing the radiation, but getting the Soviet leadership to understand the potential dangers.
Legasov is played beautifully by Jared Harris. An accomplished character actor, Harris maybe best known for his portrayal of Lane Pryce on Madmen. In Chernobyl, Harris perfectly plays a man who is both timid and naïve in how his government operates, while also being desperate and determined to save lives and his country.
He is joined by Stellan Skargard, in what I think may be his finest performance. Skargard plays Boris Shcherbina, a no-nonsense deputy prime minister. At the start, he holds little regard for Legasov and like most in the government, downplays the seriousness of the situation. But in episode two, there is a moment as the men talk in their hotel room when the truth sinks in to Shcherbina. Legasov says that the amount of radiation they’ve been exposed to in their short time near the plant has reduced their life expectancy to around five years. The way Shcherbina’s expression shows that realization sinking in is priceless. That moment is so powerful, it should win him and the series an Emmy.
With such great performances all around, I’m not going to try to discuss them all. From the main characters to the one-offs, every performance is a work of art. The settings are bleak and authentic, making the viewer feel like they are watching a show made in the 80’s. The music is the perfect blend of eerie, while some scenes simply use the sounds of a Geiger counter to remind the viewer of the invisible threat to those on screen.
Having watched various documentaries on the accident over the years, I had a basic understanding of the scope of the disaster. But this series shows you the true size and nature of the Chernobyl accident. The human toll and the impact on lives are repeatedly hammered home, in each episode. Not just the loss of life and property, but the emotional impact it had on those working to clean up. That, plus the incredible cost for cleanup, resettling the homeless, and the impact on region.
The series presses that the real danger from the accident wasn’t radiation. It was, in fact, the lack of leadership and honesty from every level of the government. The event showed the Soviet people and the rest of the world how the Soviets tried to cover things up, until they were forced to admit the truth. Watching the politicians denying and covering up their mistakes is as maddening to the viewer as it is to Legasov. Mikhail Gorbachev, last leader of the Soviet Union before its collapse, credited Chernobyl with a big part in the nation’s fall.
Let me just say that this show is brilliant, terrifying, and one of the best shows on TV. Do yourself a favor and watch.