Review: Chernobyl Is a Stark and Haunting Historical Drama

This is less a miniseries as five-hour movie than episodic television, with new narrative wrinkles introduced each week.

Photo: Liam Daniel/HBO

The first episode of HBO’s Chernobyl is devoted almost exclusively to the 1986 nuclear power plant explosion that occurred in Soviet Ukraine. No one at the plant is quite sure what’s going on, even as their faces redden from radiation. Firefighters arrive to find smoke and fire mingled into an unnatural yellow hue, an ethereal light that brings whole families out to watch from the bridge in nearby Pripyat, where they’re exposed to the harmful radiation. Bureaucrats insist nothing has gone wrong from the safety of a bunker. The imagery of this five-episode miniseries is stark and haunted, and the scope only expands outward for a far-reaching interrogation of Soviet values and human failures.

Though the miniseries’s eventual protagonists are largely absent from the first episode, it neatly outlines the conflicts they come to face: not only the disaster itself and the considerable task of mitigating further damage, but the obstinance of a government concerned with pride and secrecy to the point of outright denial. It’s a gripping concept that, considering the grave stakes and resulting devastation, needs little embellishment.

Though Chernobyl isn’t without the familiar, awkward elements of docudrama—strained exposition, summary speeches—it successfully drowns out the clanging gears of historical reenactment through the sheer quality of its construction. It deploys a host of fantastic actors to lend desperate urgency to even the most potentially dry material. As Valery Legasov, the scientist who finds himself in charge of the cleanup, Jared Harris displays the sort of wounded dignity he brought to The Terror, while accessing new depths of emotion with cowering panic and fed-up snarls; no one seems willing to believe Valery when he says how bad the situation truly is. You can see the grueling process wear him down, as it does smug politician Boris Scherbina (Stellan Skarsgård), who quickly drops his prickly exterior to become a crucial ally in accessing the considerable resources needed to deal with the disaster.

The explosion’s aftermath is an interlocking series of tasks to perform, science to consider, and obstacles to navigate. Yet despite all the complicated moving parts, the series remains easy to follow and invest in, thanks not just to the strong turns by Harris and Emily Watson, who plays a composite of other scientists who worked with the real-life Legasov, but Chernobyl’s economical structure. This is less a miniseries as five-hour movie than episodic television, with new narrative wrinkles introduced each week. It’s unrelentingly grim material—one episode shows the men assigned to kill the irradiated pets that evacuees had left behind—as well as totally engrossing, a deadly puzzle solved piece by piece with unorthodox solutions that give way to potentially ruinous complications. How can they clear a roof of reactor debris, for example, when it’s so riddled with radiation that no clean-up devices will function? What happens when sand is superheated by the very fire it’s meant to suppress?

For as easy as it would be to focus near-exclusively on the puzzle, however, screenwriter Craig Mazin takes care to foreground the disaster’s human cost. We see a soon-to-be widow (Jessie Buckley) spend time with her dying husband (Adam Nagaitis, another alumni of The Terror), a fireman whose body gradually rots into a ghastly mass of sores and burns. Scenes are devoted to the surly coal miners who dig a tunnel beneath the reactor: their reluctant enlistment, a tense meeting with Legasov and Scherbina, and the sight of them all working in the nude to mitigate the heat. In exploring the context around the disaster’s response, Chernobyl finds empathy for the affected as well as outrage for the human failures that led to the explosion—the hubris, greed, the ignorance, and the clear preference for believing nothing is wrong.

Horrific sights are to be expected considering the subject matter, and director Johan Renck certainly doesn’t shy away from people vomiting blood or the creepy emptiness of the space where the reactor core should be, lit with a yellow-green fire that makes it look like the mouth of hell. But he finds something else, too, in the emptiness and the destruction, aided by the gnarled beauty of Hildur Gudnadóttir’s spare, often distorted score. Huge plumes of smoke pour into the sky while a man gazes downward; he looks small against the scale of it all, and his face is a sickly red when he turns away. Power lines thread through transmission towers that linger uselessly around the plant, their metalwork built outward like the outstretched arms of scarecrows. With its twin focuses on humankind’s ability to solve problems and its capacity for negligent destruction, Chernobyl arrives at an austere sort of grace.

 Cast: Jared Harris, Emily Watson, Stellan Skarsgård, Paul Ritter, Con O’Neill, Adrian Rawlins, Jessie Buckley, Adam Nagaitis  Network: HBO  Buy: Amazon

Steven Scaife

Steven Nguyen Scaife is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in Buzzfeed News, Fanbyte, Polygon, The Awl, Rock Paper Shotgun, EGM, and others. He is reluctantly based in the Midwest.

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