• Platform: HBO
  • Original Air Date: 06/05/2019
  • Cast: Jared Harris, Stellan Skarsgård, Paul Ritter, Jessie Buckley, Adam Nagaitis, Con O’Neill, Adrian Rawlins
  • Director: Johan Renck

On 26th April 1986, the no. 4 nuclear reactor at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, near the city of Pripyat in the north of the Ukrainian SSR exploded. The explosion released unheard of fatal radiation which accounted for 93000 lost lives over the years. It wouldn’t be wrong to say that the same radiation may still be causing deaths today and we wouldn’t even know. The HBO miniseries, Chernobyl tries to document in vivid details everything that led to the meltdown and its aftermath.

The series starts off with the blast at the facility and we see over the course of the first episode how the man in command of the reactor, Anatoly Dyatlov (Paul Ritter), categorically lambasted anyone who claimed that it was the reactor that had blown off and not some water tank. As he walks out of his office for a breath of air, he is able to see graphite on the terrace below the reactor chamber. It is a sign that the atomic core has in fact exploded but Dyatlov still refuses to accept it even though he knows the reality in his heart and mind. But we see the chill in his eyes.

In a fit of horrifying denial, Dyatlov asks his team members to pour water into the core and then in another shocker of a move instructs to call in the fire brigade to douse the reactor fire. By this point, I was literally bouncing up and down in my chair owing to the sheer frustration and feeling of disgust for the character of Dyatlov who knowingly sends his team and a host of others to agonizing deaths. He does all this just to keep up a charade. Paul Ritter plays Dyatlov with such conviction and hateful aura that you cannot help but despise the man. His rendition is particularly close to the actual man.

Once it becomes apparently clear that Chernobyl is all set to be the worst man-made disaster on the planet, the Russian government sends in two men to deal with the problem. Valery Legasov (Jared Harris), the deputy director of the Kurchatov Institute and Boris Shcherbina (Stellan Skarsgård), the Council of Ministers’ deputy chairman. They fly into Chernobyl at a moment when the radiation quotient is blasting its way through the roof and men in command of the facility are still in denial. Shcherbina, like most Russian leaders, is in denial of the sheer proportion of the problem at hands himself but very soon understands the gravity of the situation. Legasov who has had an upbringing in the Russian ways finally starts realizing how lying and building walls around problems results in a bigger catastrophe. The performances by Harris and Skarsgård are in close keeping with the mood and tone of the narrative. They often stand up against each other in matters of what is the right thing to do and how much should be spoken about it publically but almost always end up on the same page.

Every stage of dealing with the catastrophe leads to bigger problems and almost invariably gives rise to new heroes. The problem created by pouring water to the core of the reactor which makes it a ticking time bomb is solved by three selfless individuals who swim through the most radioactive water on earth to do something that would stop the bomb from going off. About 400 coal miners dig round the clock to finish a cooling unit that would stop the radioactive deposit from reaching the groundwater and render the place inhabitable for 100 years. When these miners are unable to cope with the mounting heat, they dig without any clothes on.

A team of humans is used as bio-robots to pick up the pieces of the shattered reactor and throw it into a gorge. They can be on the site for not more than 3 minutes at a time. As the men try to do something that even a machine couldn’t, the audiences can’t help but think about the actual people who pulled off this feat that they knew would without any doubts cut short their lives drastically. Chernobyl is essentially an amalgamation of unlimited such sequences of power and horror. There is so much happening through the five episodes that people watching it with attention may even forget to breathe.

I was surprised by the hold that the series had on my senses. This is a series that is so well made and well paced that it will be never be mistaken for a documentary but would unquestionably be looked upon as a true representation of the events that led to the disaster. As Legasov and Shcherbina try to silence the oozing radiation, a host of other scientists launch an investigation looking into the chain of events and causes of the disaster. In the midst of all this, we have a tender loves story brewing between a young firefighter who is taken ill after trying to douse the fire at the plant and his pregnant wife. I loved this bit.

Emily Watson plays Ulana Khomyuk, a fictional nuclear physicist. The director says “she represents the many scientists who worked fearlessly and put themselves in a lot of danger to help solve the situation.” I believe it was a masterstroke on the part of the director to amalgamate all these scientists into one fictional character as it helps channel the attention of the viewers to a single character making it a lot easier to understand the contributions of the scientists and exactly what they were after. It also builds up some dramatic face-offs that effortlessly up the dramatic quotient and punch of the narrative. Watson is able to get under the skin of the character and we are hooked to her act from the get-go. Her thoughts and action find resonance with us which goes down a long way into making her character work.

Chernobyl is a staggering achievement in terms of technicality and storytelling. The director pays close attention to tiny details and is as effective in building characters as he is in building worlds. The world of Chernobyl is not only believable but also affecting and haunting. There is a darkness to it that just doesn’t let us breathe easy. It is beautiful but at the same time, it is doomed. You know what the characters are breathing in is poison that will eventually kill them and you live with that fear throughout the series. In a haunting scene in episode 1, we see the ashes from the Chernobyl fire flowing through the air to a nearby locality where people have gathered to watch the fire rage and see the spectacle. As these people enjoy a night stroll with their dear ones breathing in the air, we know what is in store for them. This is what makes this scene horrifying even though it is so pretty to look at.

Chernobyl is easily the best series about an actual man-made disaster and there is very little chance that it will be topped in the near future. HBO may have failed with the Season 8 of Games of Thrones but what they bring to the table with this series will be unequaled in reach, execution and sheer affectivity for years to come. This is a must watch.

Rating: 5/5 (5 out of 5 Stars) 

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