Written by: Kvitka Perehinets
NB: This review contains spoilers for HBO’s show Chernobyl
Valery Legasov (Jared Harris) thoughtfully listens to a recording of his own voice while leaning over the table in the kitchen of his Moscow apartment. He stops the recorder, takes a sip of a clear liquid out of a glass, presses a button and continues. “You see, to them, a just world is a sane world… There was nothing sane about Chernobyl. What happened there, what happened after, even the good we did, all of it… Madness.”
The opening scene of HBO’s Chernobyl takes place exactly two years after the city of Pripyat became enveloped in a radioactive cloud. The scene sets an intrigue: first, the audience watches a man record a series of tapes and sneak past the secret police to dispose of them in a discrete location. Then, they watch him hang himself. As Legasov’s feet are shown dangling in the air, a question lingers: why?
What follows is an unapologetically raw and intense tale of bureaucracy, sacrifice, and tragedy – with subtle notes of despair and anger intrinsically woven throughout. Based on an “untold story”, the five-hour miniseries set out on achieving a difficult task – shedding light on a period of history that many attempted to keep hidden. Naturally, the show bears some drawbacks in its attempt at being historically accurate: students are shown as wearing traditional festive pioneer attire on a regular day during the evacuation and the way in which radiation burns are depicted has been critiqued as not entirely truthful. However, it does not really matter.
What the creators of Chernobyl succeeded in doing was not only portraying the intricacy of the Soviet government’s efforts to keep its constituents in the dark about the explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, but also demonstrating how a desire for maintaining its dominance on the global political arena, which translated into negligence on safety matters, made the disaster, ultimately, the government’s fault. Following the opening scene and Legasov’s suicide, the audience is taken two years and one minute back in time to April 26, 1986, where they watch the explosion happen at Chernobyl’s Unit 4 reactor as seen from an apartment just a few kilometers away. The subsequent developments – scenes of unprotected and unaware fire brigades digging through the radioactive rubble; people standing on a bridge and watching the fire at the plant as children try to catch the radioactive ash falling from the sky; the selection of volunteers to go inside the reactor with the knowledge of potentially not coming out; and a show trial meant to diverge the attention from the government’s wrongdoings and put all of the blame on the engineers carrying out the orders that fateful night – strike a chord with the audience, because they call for sympathy with the most basic emotive responses to being in an environment as the one nourished in the Soviet Union: one of fear, despair, disorientation and hopelessness. This is why some historical inaccuracies of the show can be forgiven – because its goal is to first and foremost establish the cruelty of the regime as demonstrated in its blunt refusal to keep its citizens informed and protected, then to demonstrate the sequence of events as they truly happened.
The miniseries focuses on the two battles being fought at the same time: the first, with the effects of radiation – an enemy which cannot be seen, without an agenda, void of consciousness. The second, with the Soviet government’s lack of a moral compass, an equally seemingly unstoppable machine. Jared Harris (Valery Legasov) and Emily Watson (Ulyana Khomyuk) encompass the desperate efforts of Soviet scientists to influence the decision-making of the government, and subsequently save the lives of thousands of people in raw, emotional performances – where Harris plays Legasov, a member of the Academy of Sciences chosen to lead the commission investigating the Chernobyl disaster, Watson’s character is a symbolic representation of the whole scientific community, rather than based on real person. Stellan Skarsgård’s portrayal of Boris Shcherbina, the vice-chairman of the Council of Ministers at the time, gifts the audience with a brilliantly done character arc, making his transition from being skeptical of the true impact of the explosion to ultimately becoming the bridge between the scientific community and the Soviet government all the more admirable. Unapologetic, occasionally summoning the spirit of David Cronenberg with its elements of body horror, eye-opening and tragic – HBO’s Chernobyl is a must-see.