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There is no getting around this fact about HBO and Sky TV’s five-part miniseries, Chernobyl: It’s very difficult to watch. (HBO snuck the first two episodes Friday night at the Tribeca Film Festival.)
Initially, the factually accurate retelling of the worst nuclear reactor disaster in history is shift-in-your-seat uncomfortable because we know what (most of) the people at the nuclear power plant don’t and what (all of) the people in the surrounding area don’t — that they are the walking dead.
Air date: May 05, 2019
One after another plant worker is exposed to insanely toxic amounts of radiation without knowing it, or certainly without knowing the full impact. Firefighters sent in to fight “the fire” have no idea what they are touching and breathing as they get as close as they can with their hoses. Local residents standing outside in a sea of radioactive ash from “the fire” and their children and babies inhaling it and playing in it don’t know what it is, either. But you, as the viewer, know exactly what’s coming, and series creator, writer and executive producer Craig Mazin (Identity Thief, The Hangover Part II & Part III) and director Johan Renck (Breaking Bad, The Last Panthers) forcefully — and arguably too heavily, at least in the first hour — lean into the dramatics of what it means to watch a relentless stream of black smoke billow into the atmosphere, so there’s no let-up.
The second bit that’s difficult is how the Soviets immediately went into cover-up mode and how all manner of abuses and bad leadership by ignorant people in power not only worsened events but killed infinitely more people. It can be maddening to witness, precisely because there’s the benefit of distance. Lastly, there are the visuals that start as early as the second episode but hit peak horror-movie level in the third episode — bubbling skin peeling off still-alive bodies in the hospital. There ultimately isn’t much let-up and Chernobyl is both successful for never wincing at the fallout as it gets to the truth of the issue and hampered by the relentless bleakness of the topic and its depiction.
This is a cautionary tale, of course, but the most effective message the miniseries sends isn’t that the world has somehow been lucky to avoid another meltdown, but instead how frightened we all should be that a rogue country (or our own) or an accident could repeat this horrifying event all over again, except with a larger degree of damage. What Mazin nails is the dramatization of a horrible event that happened pre-cellphone, pre-internet, pre-cable-news-hysteria and thus exhumes a scary ghost we’ve all forgotten about.
It’s a powerful story. The cover-up provides a kind of thriller element to the drama. But there’s not much that needs gilding here for dramatic purposes, and Mazin has said he didn’t make anything worse than what it was really like; the facts and the science and the human toll have an exactitude.
If there’s a drawback beyond how difficult the story is to watch, it’s the decision that was made to skip Russian accents entirely. Now, granted, that may be a blessing — Eastern Bloc voice work shifts almost too easily into parody. And for argument’s sake, the Brits have been churning out historical dramas for decades that merely insert their people into the main roles — any fan of HBO’s Rome will understand (and in that case probably accept) the decision. Short of an all-Italian cast, that might have also been an accident of accents.
But in Chernobyl, the decision is simply more stark. Everyone’s name is Russian/Eastern European; city names, landmarks, official titles, the written word (and in a few scenes, full-on Russian being spoken over loud speakers to evacuate residents) clash noticeably with a heavily British cast told to speak effortlessly in their native tongue, making it all seem a bit like Downton Abbey or The Crown dropped into a Russian disaster movie. In addition, Stellan Skarsgard — not British — is excellent as the real-life Russian official Borys Shcherbina, who goes from annoyed party apparatchik to stunned believer, but plays his character with a Russian accent (note: that’s how it sounded to me but Mazin reached out to confirm that’s Skarsgard’s real accent), clashing oddly with Jared Harris (the lead), who plays nuclear scientist Valery Legasov in full English accent.
Again, that might not be a problem for some people (particularly if you don’t hear Skarsgard as Russian rather than Swedish!), but for others it will most certainly be a minor barrier or irritation.
Harris helps carry the early going of Chernobyl and fuels the rest of it with his ease at conveying, not only as a scientist but as a human, the unimaginable toll yet to come. “You are dealing with something that has never occurred on this planet before,” he says at one point.
But Mazin indulges in some mildly troubling exposition as well as a certain repetitiveness in the clash between apparatchik apologists and scientists — as when Emily Watson appears as Ulyana Khomyuk (also in an English accent), a nuclear physicist alarmed that Minsk is getting radioactive readings so far from the Chernobyl plant (something she susses out and then works to help fix). As she confronts a local party official, Mazin’s portrayal turns heavy-handed. The disbelieving bureaucrat is drinking vodka during the day and previously worked at a shoe factory.
“I’ve been assured there is no problem,” he tells her.
“I’m telling you that there is,” she responds.
“I prefer my opinion to yours,” he says, taking a sip.
“I’m a nuclear physicist,” she says, dismissively.
The problem facing Mazin and Renck as they tell the Chernobyl story is that staggering incompetence mixed with political cover-ups results in depictions of many characters as dumb or evil while the scientists are left to explain the reckoning and there’s not a lot of subtlety in between. In their defense, this is not a subtle story. The actual Chernobyl explosion and meltdown could have been exponentially worse if not for any number of Russians, either compelled by the state or willing to save their country (and many millions in Europe), who walked into certain death to help stave off further, unfathomable disaster. Chernobyl works particularly well when those stories are documented. Any time you’re dealing with a narrative where people aren’t just put into traditional coffins but their nearly liquid bodies are eased into metal caskets, welded shut and then buried under concrete — well, there’s not a whole lot of ways to make that point subtly.
A subplot about a firefighter and his wife — neither initially understanding the grave circumstances and then later flaunting them to be closer together, with dire consequences — is no doubt based on countless real-life instances but nevertheless comes off as just another collection of very rough scenes to endure. Was there a better way to show this? Would that other way be softening the blow of reality for no reason?
You should at least know what you’re getting into with Chernobyl and if you can face that awful, true story, then by all means take it in. But it won’t be for everyone.
Cast: Jared Harris, Stellan Skarsgard, Emily Watson, Jessie Buckley, Paul Ritter, Adrian Rawlins, Con O’Neill
Created, written and executive produced by: Craig Mazin
Directed by: Johan Renck
Premieres: Monday, May 6, 9 p.m. ET/PT (HBO)
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