TV Review: HBO’s Chernobyl (2019)

It could have been even more embarrassing for the Soviet Union if the Western Media used the official name of the V.I. Lenin Nuclear Power Station in its accounts of the notorious 1986 nuclear misadventure. Instead, they simply called it “Chernobyl,” referring to the neighboring Ukrainian town. The heroic work of first responders to contain the catastrophe and the Communist Party apparatchiks striving to cover it up are vividly dramatized in the five-part HBO miniseries, Chernobyl, which commences tonight, following the premiere of the first episode at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.

By far, the most villainous bureaucrat in Chernobyl is Anatoly Dyatlov, who arrogantly ignores all warnings of danger during the opening disaster scenes. However, we will learn his behavior was even worse, when those fateful moments are revisited during later episodes. Clearly, something is profoundly amiss with the power plant, but Dyatlov, his boss, and the local Party leader swing into full-fledged CYA-ing denial, wasting precious time, in hopes of saving their careers.

Prominent Soviet nuclear scientist Valery Legasov has no desire to become a hero or a whistle-blower, but when he is called to an emergency meeting at the Kremlin, he cannot help contradicting their unrealistically rosy assessments. He is especially concerned by reports of graphite shards strewn across the plant’s grounds, because that indicates reactor number four has indeed been compromised. Deputy Minister Boris Shcherbina does not want to hear that kind of talk and neither does Gorbachev, but he nonetheless dispatches both the Party loyalist and the scientist to make a boots-on-the-ground assessment.

Of course, when they reach Chernobyl, the severity of the situation and the incompetence of the local officials will become clear, even to Shcherbina. Thusly begins their odd couple efforts to halt the runaway nuclear reaction and prevent greater devastation. Soon, they will be joined by Belarusian nuclear scientist, Ulana Khomyuk, whose observations from the nearest functioning nuclear power station will be critical. Eventually, Legasov manages to convince Shcherbina to start evacuating civilians, earning the unwelcome attention of the KGB (which was never a happy development).

As you would expect from a five-hour mini, Chernobyl has several secondary-threads. The weakest, focusing on Lyudmilla Ignatenko, a Ukrainian woman who comes to Moscow in hopes of nursing her radiation-ailing fire-fighter husband back to health, is predictably manipulative. However, the scenes following the three-man team assigned to shoot and dispose of all the stray dogs inhabiting what will become the Exclusionary Zone viscerally conveys the emotional toll imposed on Chernobyl first responders.

*image courtesy of HBO (2019)

Just when Werner Herzog’s documentary comes out trying to rehabilitate Gorbachev’s PR image, Chernobyl arrives to remind us he was still ultimately a secretive creature of the Soviet Communist Party, who did his best to deceive the West of the extent and severity of the incident, even hampering international relief through the disinformation he had disseminated. It should also be stipulated Swedish actor David Dencik is quite the spooky dead ringer for Gorby.

Based on his work on the first self-contained season of AMC’s The Terror and his portrayal of Legasov, Jared Harris could lay claim to being the new “King of the Minis.” It is a terrific performance that balances cynicism and integrity, in a way that seems very Russian. The same applies with even more force to Stellan Skarsgård’s surprisingly soulful portrayal of Shcherbina, who emerges as a tragic figure of classical proportions.

Emily Watson displays competent professionalism in her scenes as Khomyuk, but the composite character obviously looks like she was tacked on, without having a clearly defined role to play in the narrative. (To see Watson’s talents better showcased in a Soviet-era drama, check her out in Marleen Gorris’s Within the Whirlwind.) On the other hand, Paul Ritter truly personifies the suck-up-kick-down nature of Soviet Socialism as the utterly despicable Dyatlov.

All five installments were directed by Johan Renck, which leads to a consistency of style and tone. However, it is the art and design team who really distinguish Chernobyl with the scrupulously realistic look. They really transport viewers back to the provincial USSR, circa 1986, with all its Brutalistic architecture, Spartan furnishings, and drab, industrial color schemes.

In the West, we say “the cover up is worse than the crime.” That turns out to the case for Chernobyl as well, but the KGB would go to great conspiratorial lengths to prevent the scientists from exposing the Soviet Union’s embarrassing secrets. The series builds towards a “you can’t handle the truth” courtroom climax, but creator-screenwriter Craig Mazin is too honest for a neat and tidy conclusion. Instead, he maintains historical accuracy and stays true to the grim realities of Soviet Socialism, every tense, paranoid step of the way. Very highly recommended, Chernobyl is airing now on HBO.

 

*lead image courtesy of HBO (2019)

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