Directed by: Craig Mazin
Premise: Based on true events. An explosion at the Soviet Union’s nuclear power plant in Chernobyl creates an environmental disaster. Scientists and government officials work to contain the disaster while negotiating the Soviet political system.
What Works: Chernobyl was a five-part miniseries first broadcast on HBO in 2019 and this is an excellent example of how the space afforded by serialized television is suited to telling long and complex stories. The narrative unfolds mostly chronologically starting with the explosion and the struggle to contain the outpouring of radiation followed by the investigation into the causes of the accident and the public revelations of what actually happened. At each step, the filmmakers frame the conflict as a triangle between the heroic lead characters who try to solve the problem, the ecological disaster smoldering in the ruins of the power plant, and the obstruction of the Soviet state. The story primarily unfolds from the point of view of Valery Legasov, a chemist who is brought in to advise the containment and cleanup effort, and Boris Shcherbina, the deputy chairman of the Council of Ministers. Legasov and Shcherbina, played by Jared Harris and Stellan Skarsgård respectively, need each other to solve the problem. Legasov has the scientific expertise while Shcherbina has the political connections and an understanding of Soviet bureaucracy to get the resources needed to do the job. The two men’s different backgrounds cause them to conflict early on but Legasov and Shcherbina gradually understand each other and develop a mutual respect that gives the film some human warmth. Their work is paralleled by a fictionalized nuclear physicist, played by Emily Watson, who investigates the causes of the accident and must evade Soviet surveillance to get to the truth. Chernobyl conveys the horror of the nuclear accident but that horror is compounded by the denialism of the Soviet government. As depicted here, the country’s leadership obstructed the containment efforts for fear of showing failure or weakness to each other or to the outside world. The institutional thinking of the Soviet leadership becomes lethal, dooming the citizens of Chernobyl to radioactive death and delaying measures that might have saved others. The bravery of the characters isn’t just in facing an unprecedented radioactive disaster but also in standing up to leaders in denial. That adds a layer of drama onto the story that distinguishes this miniseries from other disaster tales.
What Doesn’t: Chernobyl is not a pleasant film to watch, especially the first episode. The miniseries captures the effects of radiation poisoning on human bodies in all of its gory detail. That’s a necessary part of this story and it is handled tastefully. But Chernobyl isn’t the kind of story that wraps up in a happy ending. The facts in the case don’t lead to a rosy conclusion and it is to the filmmakers’ credit that they don’t try to force an optimistic spin on this story. Chernobyl has a similar feel to movies like Schindler’s List and Full Metal Jacket; what it has to show us is not fun but it is necessary.
DVD extras: Featurettes and interviews.
Bottom Line: Chernobyl is a tough watch but it’s also worth the effort. As dark and as cold as the story is, Chernobyl is also a story of extraordinary heroism and ingenuity of people working in nearly impossible circumstances.
Episode: #780 (December 15, 2019)