TV Review: Chernobyl Recounts a Real-Life Horror Story to Increasingly Draining Ends

(Editor’s Note: The following article discusses all five episodes of the HBO miniseries Chernobyl.)

The Pitch: In the dead of night, a nuclear reactor in the Chernobyl power plant explodes, releasing an unfathomable amount of radiation on the nearby Ukranian town of Pritya and beyond. Soviet scientist Valery Legasov (Jared Harris) is brought in to assist with containing the fallout, and forms an unlikely friendship with Communist Party bureaucrat Boris Scherbina (Stellan Skarsgard). Along with nuclear physicist Ulana Khomyuk (Emily Watson), the heroes of Chernobyl scramble to cease the spread of radiation and prevent even further disaster, all while investigating the initial explosion itself. At every turn, the trio is stifled by an incompetent Soviet bureaucracy that refuses to admit any error, to say nothing of the radiation. They have to contend with lots and lots of deadly radiation.

Lies, Lies, Lies: Chernobyl writer/creator Craig Mazin makes it clear from the opening lines — recited by a disgraced Legasov into a tape recorder in 1989, right before he hangs himself — that the real enemy here wasn’t the radiation. It was the endless gauntlet of lies. Specifically, lies within the Soviet state, so frequently repeated for such a long time that they became indistinguishable from the truth. That’s why the heroes of this story are scientists; in part, it’s for the knowledge they bring to bear, but their process is equally important. They investigate, they measure, they assess. They deal with facts, not propaganda. The miniseries’ first episode, which covers the immediate aftermath of the explosion, exhibits one blatant wrong decision after another, each one compounding the disaster as they go along. When Harris arrives onscreen and starts asking the right questions, it’s a genuine relief.

Chernobyl hammers home its central theme of politically motivated misinformation so often that the constant pounding takes its toll after a while. In the scenes with Harris, Watson, and Skarsgard, the writing is tight, but Mazin’s moralizing gets in the way: As the series builds to a dramatic courtroom conclusion, too many of its contradictions are neatly resolved. There is a bucket marked “truth”, and another marked “lies”, and everything the series puts forward in its five episodes fits snugly into one or the other. The slippery, ouroboric power of the Soviet bureaucracy — consistently one of Chernobyl’s most fascinating elements — simply provides a forum for our heroes to stand up and speak truth against it. Nothing more.

The miniseries is at its most effective as a left-brained work drama, with Harris and co. facing down a series of deadly puzzles to be immediately solved. First, they have to determine the true scope of the radiation being released, then they have to somehow cover up the open core, and then they have to keep the core from exploding or melting down into the Ukranian water table. Even their cleverest solutions often come at a cost, as they require additional workers to be brought in, men who then see their life expectancies dramatically shortened. The only solution? Our heroes are distressed to find that it’s a simple one: Lie to them.

The More, the Not-So-Merrier: Chernobyl boasts a sprawling supporting cast, almost all of whom are cast from the U.K. and Ireland. While Harris, Skarsgard, and Watson are far and away the series’ three central figures, it really is an ensemble piece. Chief among the supporting players is rising Irish actress Jessie Buckley as Ludmilla, the wife of a Pritya firefighter, Vasily (played by Harris’ The Terror co-star Adam Nagaitis). As a first responder to the plant, Vasily quickly succumbs to radiation poisoning and is airlifted to a hospital in Moscow. When Ludmilla finds him, she is warned repeatedly not to touch him. She does not listen.

Alongside Buckley and Nagaitis, Adam Ritter, Con O’Neill, and Adrian Rawlins are functionally the stars of the series’ first episode, portraying a trio of incompetent, venal plant officials, men whose early refusal to acknowledge the severity of the situation ends up making everything worse. And when the clean-up effort swells to include thousands of recruits clearing the surrounding area, Dunkirk’s Barry Keoghan is one of them. His wide-eyed naivete quickly gives way to the glassy look of a man trying to reckon with the brutal realities that Chernobyl has forced upon his country. (Animal lovers be warned: Skipping all of Keoghan’s scenes might be a good idea.)

The first episode is a daunting one, as following a brief prologue and a distant view of the Chernobyl explosion, viewers are thrown in headfirst as crew members scramble to fix a situation that Ritter’s Deputy Chief Engineer Dyatlov insists is not an exploded reactor. Without any introduction to these characters — and with all plant employees wearing the same sterile white uniforms — it’s almost impossible to tell the characters apart. Early on, it recalls The Terror in terms of its sheer face-blindness. But don’t worry: Almost all of these characters will soon be dead, and the show will circle back around to the ones you need to know.

By the Numbers: The wide scope that Mazin takes with his subject matter means that Chernobyl alternates between a linear thriller and a series of vignettes. Some of these interstitials provide Chernobyl’s strongest moments, while others ultimately hamper its efforts as the show struggles under the weight of its own storytelling. The best vignettes are the ones that add a visceral thrill — like an unbroken camera shot of workers racing out onto a roof to clear radioactive debris — while others disappoint, adding width but little depth. Even Buckley’s plot, so crucial in the early episodes, feels half-formed, as though Mazin meant to return to her story’s second act and then never did.

Chernobyl is beautiful and often horrifying — mostly in scenes that excruciatingly recreate the late stages of radiation poisoning — but it’s never able to justify itself as more than a grisly chronicle of its source material. Chernobyl the nuclear disaster was a shock to the world, but Chernobyl the HBO miniseries only matches that impact in brief moments. This is partly due to Mazin’s ambitious but workmanlike writing, but it’s also attributable to director Johan Renck, who helms all five episodes. Renck does serviceable work, but he too often seems to be working from a paint-by-numbers kit for the dour historical drama. Several moments per episode are accentuated by melodramatic slow motion, taking a script that’s already heavy-handed and adding its own beefy digits to the mix. The show’s most distinctive design choice is to integrate the mad clicking of Geiger counters into its score, something it does in several scenes. It’s a simple choice, maybe even an obvious one, but it gets the blood pressure going. The rest of the Hildur Guðnadóttir score is all buzzing and pounding and the kind of eerie synths that have become a musical shorthand for a “serious” work of late.

The show’s blunt approach to its subject is possibly best reflected in its monochromatic sense of tone. Chernobyl’s two settings are doom and gloom, an unrelenting approach that at first matches and induces the pain of the disaster, but eventually gives way to numbness. A slightly surreal scene where Legasov and Scherbina take in a crew of naked coal miners stands out because of the vein of strange black humor that it manages to strike. This certainly isn’t to suggest that the series needed to be funnier — this isn’t The Death of Stalin — but it’s a sharp variation in tone that helps to jar and invigorate the senses. No one would ever confuse Chernobyl for a lullaby, but the effect is eventually similar. As one scene of unspeakable horror follows the next, the viewer eventually builds up their defenses. Chernobyl is happy to continue making wave after wave of frontal assaults when it would be better served looking for ways to sneak (and lingeR) under viewers’ skin.

The Verdict: The Chernobyl disaster is an ideal subject for a series like this: The kind of famous incident that everyone remembers, but few actually know anything about. But while Mazin makes an occasionally powerful case about the costs of willful ignorance, the show never transcends its horrifying subject.

Where’s It Playing? Chernobyl airs on HBO beginning May 6th.

Trailer: 

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