Review: HBO’s ‘Chernobyl’ Examines a Catastrophic Mistake With a Personal Focus That Both Honors and Eviscerates Its Subjects
“Every lie we tell incurs a debt to the truth. Sooner or later, that debt is paid.”
I watched all of Chernobyl in one day, all 5-plus hours of creator Craig Mazin and director Johan Renck’s miniseries. I wouldn’t recommend that to everyone, but I couldn’t stop queuing up the next installment of Chernobyl, a show that considered a catastrophe with global implications through the lens of individuals struggling to combat the DNA-altering misery that was about to befall them. Mazin and Renck shouldered a colossal undertaking—breaking down high-level scientific concepts, portraying the layers of political and social friction in the USSR in the late ’80s, and honoring all the people who worked to contain “something that has never occurred on this planet before”—and in Chernobyl they crafted a consistently tense, thoroughly harrowing, sometimes beautiful portrait of humanity on the brink of collapse.
What happened in Chernobyl can be traced second by second, decision by decision, and in Monday’s series finale, “Vichnaya Pamyat,” nuclear expert Valery Legasov (Jared Harris, phenomenal in another show this year after the excellent The Terror) does just that, laying out every step that led to the 1986 nuclear explosion. Every instance of political posturing. Every redaction of state secrets. Every abuse upon workers. Every attempt at a cover-up. But what the show accomplished past just presenting a timeline was shading in the human beings, the workers and the bureaucrats and the scientists and the citizens and the soldiers and the firefighters and the miners, all of these thousands of people, all of these lives irrevocably altered. From an atomic level, from the inside out, your component parts turning against each other, your self transforming into something grotesque; I have never seen a body-horror movie as terrifying as what actually happened in Chernobyl.
“Every generation must know its own suffering,” says Boris Shcherbina (a fantastic Stellan Skarsgård), and Chernobyl hammers that home. In the premiere episode “1:23:45” alone, Legasov hangs himself before the opening credits; Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant workers stare in horror as wounds and lesions suddenly bloom on their bodies, spreading blood across their white jumpsuits; a firefighter’s hand basically melts off after he picks up a chunk of irradiated graphite; glowing radioactive dust settles into children’s hair, onto their skin, into their lungs; a bird falls from the sky, its wings and its legs failing, its body failing. That’s all in the first hour. And on and on, unrelentingly so, as the ramifications of the nuclear core explosion take effect, as it becomes clear that nuclear material could spread to other countries through the wind or the groundwater, as the possibility arises that Chernobyl could continue to burn “until the entire continent is dead.”
Mazin provides Legasov’s character with these dumps of exposition that never feel like pandering to an information-starved audience but that are compellingly shared, tidbit by tidbit, so that we—like Scherbina, like General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev (David Dencik), like KGB Chairman Charkov (Alan Williams)—understand the overwhelming gravity of the situation at hand, and how quickly it can transform from something already pretty fucking bad into something far worse. Minutes, hours, and days are all Legasov and Shcherbina and nuclear physicist Ulana Khomyuk (Emily Watson, bringing principled intelligence and grace to an amalgamated character) have to intuit and prepare for each new nightmarish outcome, to try and stop the bleed. And the way that Renck introduces new characters, switching between various perspectives and locations, adds depth and broadness to the narrative, from Lyudmilla Ignatenko (Jessie Buckley), a firefighter’s wife trying to understand what is happening to her husband Vasily (Adam Nagaitis) after he was on the front lines at Chernobyl, to Pavel (Barry Keoghan), a young man who signs up for work in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. They’re each dragged into a situation they didn’t create, their lives now altered by an accident that could have been avoided, their once-youthful vibrancy curdled into something more cynical, less hopeful, a little bit dead.
Nearly every episode of Chernobyl struck this balance excellently: the human toll of the explosion and the human will required to contain and contest it. Some of these images will never, ever leave my mind: the firefighters’ bodies dissolving in contained beds of plastic; citizens’ faces turned bright red after exposure to nuclear material; the villagers who refused to leave their homes despite evacuation orders. And yet other moments captured such selflessness, demonstrated so fully the potential of goodness in every person, that I had to pause the show every so often to weep. The three plant workers who volunteered for what seemed like a suicide mission wading in the reactor’s water tanks — they saw through Legasov’s lie about the situation being fully safe, and yet stood up anyway. The 400 miners who worked nonstop, sometimes in the nude because of the overwhelming heat, to dig ditches underneath the reactor; the loyalty mine foreman Glukhov (Alex Ferns) displays toward his workers is exceptionally pure. And the hundreds of thousands who reported to the Exclusion Zone to raze crops, burn down forests, and eliminate all that was left alive—men who drink too much and threaten each other and are worried that their genitalia will burn off because of the radiation, but who still went out in the fields, dosimeters in hand, doing what needed to be done.
I’m not trying to say the USSR was good—and Chernobyl certainly has moments where the fact that it’s a British production aired on American television, with an inherent set of biases, is clear—but Mazin and Renck honor these individuals and tie their sacrifice to a national mentality that linked individual labor to the overall good of the people. Of course, the immorality of plant engineer Anatoly Dyatlov (Paul Ritter, pulling off a truly reprehensible character); the USSR’s obsession with presenting itself as superior and lying to maintain that image; and the KGB’s hold of terror among Soviet citizens are all portrayed, and they’re necessary for this story, to understand the myriad factors that shaped the causes of the nuclear explosion and the reaction afterward. But it’s not impossible—it’s quite easy, actually—to link the way the USSR attempts to spin Chernobyl and how they try to make lies facts with our current political reality, in which denials of truth and rejections of science are also commonplace. There are some lines of dialogue that are too on-the-nose with their “The USSR was failing” messaging (like when Khomyuk butts heads with a politician whose background as a shoe-factory worker implies that he is ineffective at his job), but Charkov’s threats against private citizens for refusing loyalty to the state—doesn’t that sound familiar to you?
There is a specific moment in Chernobyl that I’ll be thinking about for a long time: Shcherbina and Legasov have returned to Chernobyl for the trial of Dyatlov and the other men in charge of the plant, and they’re both dying because of their exposure to the nuclear explosion during their response the year before, and they’re each drowning in regret. Shcherbina, a party man whose inherent goodness guided his actions away from the official version of events, isn’t sure he did enough. Legasov, whose current truthful motivation is in contrast to his former loyalty to the party, is reassuring his comrade that they did all they could. Two broken men in a place defined by greed and ignorance and destruction—and then, on Shcherbina’s hand, a baby caterpillar. Barely an inch long, a little sliver of green crawling, seeking out the sunlight. A moment of rebirth among so much death.
“Life finds a way,” Ian Malcolm said in Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park, and life did find a way in Chernobyl—not in the Exclusion Zone, which is still cordoned off from the rest of the world, and not for the thousands who died. But life in the form of people like Legasov and Shcherbina and Khomyuk and Vasily and Pavel and Glukhov and how they responded, how they fought for humanity’s survival, how they found solutions to problems that seemed insurmountable and impossible. People like them were the best of us, and they gave themselves for the worst of us. In its unflinching recreation of one of the most horrible accidents in all human history, Chernobyl honors the heroes who saved us. “There was nothing sane about Chernobyl,” Legasov says, but he was wrong. The human response to the disaster and the desire to protect the living—I can’t think of anything more sane than that.
Chernobyl aired on HBO from May 6 through June 3 and is available on HBO Go, HBO NOW, and HBO On Demand.
Header Image Source: HBO Media Relations
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