A horrifying true story about which criminally few people know the truth, HBO have bestowed unto the world as seemingly real, accurate, and truthful portrayal of one of the most catastrophic disasters in human history. Through a combination of security protocol breaches, an unstoppable chain of events occurred that resulted in the death of, as far we know, thousands of people. Over the course of 5 episodes, we’re taken on a harrowing journey through the events of April 26th, 1986 and beyond of the infamous, catastrophic Chernobyl Disaster.
You’d be forgiven for not being allured to the show based on the creative team behind it. Its creator, Craig Mazin, has efforts like Scary Movie 3 & 4, The Hangover Part II & III, and The Huntsman: Winter’s War to his name. Its director, Johan Renck, only has a handful of TV credits to his name with a few episodes of Breaking Bad and an episode of The Walking Dead. These aren’t names that jump off the page when you want to make a true-to-life version of a disaster. And yet, what these two have conjured up is one of the most gripping series I’ve seen for years.
Chernobyl is paced brilliantly. It doesn’t hang around for disaster to strike, it happens within minutes, and the first episode is a tense race against time for the nuclear plant’s workers and the town’s inhabitants. Unaware of the catastrophic impact of the explosion, local firefighters rush to the scene on an ultimately futile rescue mission, tragically unaware of the horror that befalls them sooner after the fact.
As the weight of the matter sets in, we’re taken along a journey of discovery, trial, and error as Valery Legasov (Jared Harris) and Boris Shcherbina (Stellan Skarsgard) attempt to throw a top hat on a fire hose. It soon becomes a case of damage limitation, and no solution is ever easy. In an early exchange with the then General Secretary of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev (David Dencik), Legasov is forced to ask for permission to kill 3 men in an attempt to rescue something from the disaster. It’s a horrible moment that puts the disaster into even more perspective – people had to die to stop even more people dying.
Hundreds and thousands of people are thrown into the belly of the beast to salvage the situation. Local miners are recruited, led by a brilliant Alex Ferns in a role that provides the series rare moments of levity, who willingly put themselves in the path of danger for the greater good. Young men are drafted as if joining the army to clear radioactive material from the nuclear plant roof. This is one of the series’ stand-out set-pieces – a one-take, 90 second sprint to clear radioactive rubble, adding tension to an already harrowing experience for the men handed the task. Even more are recruited to a civilian liquidator team, given the unenviable task of destroying any remaining lifeforms in the exclusion zone – the radiation filled area surrounding Chernobyl. A particularly horrible sequence and sure to be one of the newest entries in the infamous www.doesthedogdie.com archives.
Of course, the disaster itself is a morbid curiosity to many, but the show puts a lot on the shoulders of its three leads, Jared Harris, Stellan Skarsgard, and Emily Watson. All three are terrific. What begins as a tumultuous business relationship between Valery Legasov and Boris Shcherbina develops into a relationship built on the foundations of mutual respect. Forced together against their will and having to work to limit an already dreadful tragedy, Harris and Skarsgard bare the weight of the disaster on their shoulders and portray two men with their backs against the wall effortlessly.
Emily Watson, playing a fictional composite character named Ulana Khomyuk, who represents several other scientists on Legasov’s team, is a much-needed stern voice in proceedings. As the radiation slowly seeps its way across Eastern Europe, the effect of it all on the local population hasn’t struck home for the hundreds of thousands in its path. The show follows a select few Chernobyl inhabitants (one of which is Wild Rose’s Jessie Buckley) and their failure to follow instructions, resulting in even more tragic casualties. Ulana attempts to resolve situations at local hospitals but the damage has already been done for many of its inhabitants, forcing Ulana to do everything she can to get to the bottom of what the hell went down the night of April 26, 1986. Watson is brilliant in the role, finishing off her performance with a harrowing testimony at the trial in the finale that puts emphasis on the human disaster of it all above the scientific one.
Jared Harris, a fine actor who has largely stuck to roles in science-fiction shows like Fringe and The Expanse, takes the reins of Chernobyl and makes the character of Legasov entirely his own. He puts so much subtlety into his performance, from the incredulity of the disaster itself, to the frustration at those who let it happen, Harris’ portrayal as one of the heroes of Chernobyl is a stunner. In the series finale, his witness testimony at the trial could have been a slog given its heavily scientific nature, but Harris delivers it so convincingly that it becomes something you cannot take your eyes off. As his testimony comes to an end, Legasov begins to lower his professional façade and speak some cold truths about the disaster and delivers some of the best closing lines to a monologue I’ve heard in film or TV.
“Every lie we tell incurs a debt to the truth. Sooner or later, the debt is paid.”
Awards conversations are already taking place, and I’d feel comfortable putting several bets on Harris to take home award after award when TV awards season rolls around. Hell, it’s going to take something special for anything to stop Chernobyl from sweeping the awards season.
The final episode encapsulates everything that is brilliant about the show. From flawless writing, beautifully shot sequences (Legasov’s nervous walk to the podium is paired with an off-kilter, wobbly, beautiful tracking shot centred on his face), and actors delivering the monologues of their lives, Chernobyl could not have ended on a more poignant note. Chernobyl, once the dust has settled on a show that has taken the world by storm, is sure to go down as one of 2019’s finest efforts.