Binge or Purge?: Chernobyl.
Chernobyl features a gripping narrative and heart-rending pathos while delivering an important warning.
HBO may have botched the landing when it came to Game of Thrones, but they quickly got back on the horse with Chernobyl. This five part mini-series grabs you from the first scene and never lets go. Writer/Creator Craig Mazin, mostly known for his comedies such as the second and third Hangover movies, spins a gem. There is harrowing drama and soul crushing tragedy, but also notes of optimism, compassion, and even humor. While the story dramatizes the events in places, the creators are keen to highlight any discrepancies – through both an informational montage at the end of the final episode and companion podcasts where Mazin goes over their process in fine detail.
Chernobyl functions well as a historical disaster drama, but also as a well-nuanced commentary on current events.
Episode 1: 12:23:45.
Shortly after midnight on April 26th 1986 reactor 4 at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant explodes. Ten years after the explosion, we see nuclear scientist Valery Legasov (Jared Harris) compose his final findings on the disaster, including information that the government wants to keep censored. He hides the tapes where a colleague can find them, and then commits suicide.
We flashback to the minutes that led to disaster, and the immediate response – ranging from the arrogant plant supervisor, the corrupt manager, and the politically motivated town council who all want to quickly sweep the incident under the carpet. Fortunately, the horrific amount of radiation alerts scientists far and wide about the true nature of the catastrophe.
You really can’t establish the nature and tone of a series any better than Chernobyl does. The very first scene creates a mysterious context and a personal tragedy, which is quickly followed by the fiery hell of the larger tragedy. The forces at play, from the local to the national are all deftly brought in and situated in the narrative. The casting is excellent, from the well-known leads to the minor roles. The obsessive attention to detail (the production went as far as pillaging second hand stores across the Ukraine to get period appropriate props and even used Soviet era cloth to create the costumes) is so seamless that it creates a deep sense of immediacy and immersion. We get a mix of political tension, human drama, wry dark humor, and some of the most gorgeously realized disaster footage ever shot. The shots of the exposed reactor are like looking into the most beautiful periscope to hell ever constructed.
Episode 3: Open Wide, O Earth.
One disaster after the other is being valiantly fought by Legasov, his Soviet handler (Stellan Skarsgård), and the heroic men and women who march into mortal danger to shore up the reactor. Legasov dispatches Ulana Khomyuk (Emily Watson, playing a nuclear scientist who stands in for the team who worked to understand the disaster) to secretly interview the survivors of the explosion, as they could succumb to radiation sickness at any moment. As she slowly pieces together the truth, the KGB bares their fangs.
The first couple episodes were viscerally about the explosion and the first efforts to combat it. The series pivots here to begin the political and legal battle that will culminate in Legasov’s death, and the ultimate revelation of the design flaw in USSR reactors that could have caused a half dozen Chernobyls. The drama resists being a simple story of heroes and villains, although the series does make mighty efforts to make sure the audience knows exactly how many people put their lives in sure danger to prevent further tragedy. While there are some nasty people, there is also quite a bit of humanity shown to most involved. Even Gorbachev comes off as sympathetic, despite making some very cold-blooded decisions. You see the results of a remorseless political machine, but also the stoic heroism of a people, many who really did buy into “solidarity” as an ideal they would die for.
Episode 5: Vichnaya Pamyat.
The supervisors and managers are set to appear in a show trial, where blame will fall squarely on them and not the structural and institutional failures that made their poor decisions into a hellish tragedy. Legasov wrestles with his conscience; Khomyuk’s sleuthing has given him the full picture – even his own culpability in signing off on the theoretical safety of Chernobyl type reactors. The state expects him to point the finger at the three men and then shut up. If he instead speaks the truth, his career and the lives of those who helped him most likely will be forfeit.
As strong as the series began, it finds another surge of energy to finish even stronger. The moral drama inside Legasov is adroitly counterpointed by a complete reconstruction of the day of the disaster. We finally get to see all of the players and all of the movements that led up to the catastrophe. We also get some more of that absolutely beautiful disaster porn. The fire inside the reactor should get a best supporting actor nod, it’s that powerful.
The series makes sure that every little bit of the human cost is accounted for. It touches on the vices of the Soviet system, but also uses it to draw interesting parallels to today’s political situations. It also foregrounds the metaphor to today’s looming climate catastrophe in a way that is organic and powerful. Nobody thought Chernobyl could happen. When it did, they retreated into their dogma and denied it HAD happened, and was still happening. Sound anything like where we’re at these days?
To cap it all off, the final montage at the end of the series, complete with contemporary images, is an emotional gut punch. The sheer breadth of the damage, the sheer cost in terms of lives and human misery, and the sheer heroism of those that stood up and fought it, knowing the cost, is staggering. I lost my composure watching it the first time, and I get emotional just remembering it a week later.
Binge or Purge?
HBO’s Chernobyl is one of the best bits of television I’ve seen since Band of Brothers. It hits you like a ton of bricks; it grabs you by the back of the head and compels you to look. It is excellently paced, beautifully crafted, and fantastically acted. It is also a tremendous statement of what the medium can do when it is in the hands of people who will not compromise their vision one iota.
Chernobyl was supposed to be six parts, but Mazin realized the story was best served in five. So they shot five. No filler, no bullshit, just following where the story dictated to go. The inclusion of featurettes and the podcast all point to a deep commitment to get this story told, and told the way the creator envisioned it. It’s not a documentary, but it works hard to fit its message and story into the history of the events. Anyway, documentaries cheat the truth sometimes as well, with far less candor.
Chernobyl is electrifying television and worthy of every acclaim it has received. Binge.