In the early morning hours of April 26th, 1986, just outside the Northern Ukraine city of Pripyat, something went wrong at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. Thanks to a simulated power-failure exercise, human incompetence, design flaws and an inability to stop the domino effect as things began to spiral out of control, one of the reactors exploded. The region quickly became dangerously contaminated. Plant directors immediately began to downplay the problem. Meanwhile, scientists were picking up insanely high levels of radiation some 400 km away. It would take over a week to contain the raging inferno that started at the core; winds and other natural conditions would spread the toxicity throughout other parts of Russia and Eastern Europe. The evacuated “exclusion zone” would grow exponentially. The word “Chernobyl” has now become a shorthand for worst-case scenarios involving nuclear power as a whole. It’s estimated that the incident may have resulted in as many as 93,000 fatalities to date. The Soviet Union’s official death toll is still listed as 31.
HBO’s Chernobyl, which premieres May 6th, spends some five hours showing you how a perfect storm of screw-ups and cover-ups led to a genuine catastrophe, as well as diving into an aftermath of devastation that plays like a slow-motion nightmare. But it’s the way this miniseries introduces the event that initially grabs you. Padding across the darkened, silent apartment she shares with her fireman husband, Lyudmilla Ignatenko (Jessie Buckley) sleepily enter her kitchen to make coffee. Framed through her window, we can see a tiny bright dot in the background; suddenly, it expands into a near-perfect sphere of white light. The woman doesn’t even notice it until her flat begins to shake from the blast a good six or seven seconds later. This is the bang experienced first as a whimper, then a roar. But it serves to present an infamous massive disaster from a decidedly human perspective, starting with the catalyst and ending with the cost. And that will make all of the difference.
Ignatenko’s story, and her quest to locate her first-responder spouse after he rushes to the scene, is just one of several narrative strands that writer Craig Mazin and director Johan Renck thread throughout this ensemble piece. We follow Valery Legasov (Jared Harris), a scientist who’s called upon by General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev (David Dencik) to lead an investigation alongside party official Boris Shcherbina (Stellan Skarsgård). We observe Ulana Khomyuk (Emily Watson), a nuclear physicist who’s one of few to fully grasp the magnitude of what’s happened right away, try to convince those in power that emergency measures need to be taken. (“I’m telling you there is no problem,” one fatcat behind a desk assures her. “I’m telling you there is,” she insists. His response: “I prefer my opinion to yours.”) Late in the series, we meet Pavel (Dunkirk‘s Barry Keough), a civilian who’s conscripted into the disposal of wild dogs after evacuations begin. And we watch as plant employees, hospital workers, soldiers, farmers and other regular citizens begin to get sicker, and sicker, and sicker ….
It’s a revisiting of a national tragedy as a season in hell, one that still comes uncomfortably close to devolving into prestige-TV disaster porn at times despite the attention paid to people over set pieces. God and the devil are in the details here, from a red hand that’s touched contaminated clothes bulk-piled into a basement room (an end disclaimer informs us that those piles still remain there — and are still too radioactive to move) to the way wet cement covers the lead-boxed coffins of the deceased. The mood is gray, foreboding, apocalyptic — this is a miniseries devoted to Chernobyl, after all. And though the sheer number of dour British actors calling each other “comrade” occasionally brings to mind The Death of Stalin — thankfully, no one tries a Russian accent, thus avoiding potential fatal cases of Boris-and-Natasha–itis — there’s precious little humor, pitch-black or otherwise. Some will call this a bit of a slog. They won’t be wrong.
But this five-part autopsy has more on its mind then just recreating a snapshot of IRL horror in the name of attracting subscribers and awards-season kudos. Yes, you may raise your eyebrows regarding the pedigree of those telling this story (Mazin, the primary mover and shaker behind the project, has two Scary Movies, two Hangover movies and one The Huntsman: Winter’s War on his resume; Renck is a Swedish director best known for his work in music videos and commercials). Yet both they and the cast innately understand how this accident was able to metastasize into something that almost decimated a continent. It happened because of a protocol that prized doublespeak and denial over decisive action; because it’s easier to discount scientists as Chicken Littles (“It’s not alarmist if it’s a fact”); because higher-ups and petty bureaucrats prefer to let unpleasant statements fall on deaf ears in order to save face.
“The real danger is that if we hear enough lies, then we no longer recognize the truth at all,” one character says. Should you want to accuse Chernobyl of burying the lede, you should know that this line is uttered within the very first minute. And yet the words keep echoing in your head throughout the 299 minutes that follow it, as you watch things fall apart and the center fail to hold. It’s a portrait of a meltdown on too many levels to count. It doesn’t take a nuclear physicist to see why it makes a lot of sense to look back on this moment right now.