Chernobyl: Miniseries Review

ChernobylChernobyl, based on the events that transpired in the moments leading up to and after the worst nuclear disaster that the world has ever known, is the testament that HBO has not lost its touch in delivering intense and in depth dramas which many might have forgotten after the sub par final season of its epic hit Game of Thrones. Within its five episodes, Chernobyl delivered on a heart pounding, heart wrenching depiction of the devastation brought about by the explosion that decimated the Chernobyl Power Plant in 1986 on the areas and lives surrounding it. I’m still reeling from the last episode.

Synopsis: On April 26, 1986, a safety test on the RBMK nuclear reactor at the Chernobyl Power Plant in Pritpyat, USSR is being run by Comrade Anatoly Dyatlov, a strict no nonsense officer at the plant who wants to deliver on the results and get his promotion. However, after pushing the reactor’s boundaries, the AZ-5 or the kill switch which was supposed to shut down the plant, aggravates the conditions and causes an explosion of epic proportions, exposing the core and releasing uranium bullets into the air. After a series of cover ups, Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev sends the Council of Ministers’ Deputy Chairman Boris Shcherbina (Stellan Skarsgard) and RBMK expert Professor Valery Legasov (Jared Harris) to Chernobyl to properly report on the extent of the damage. They were unprepared for what happens next.

In as much as the core of that nuclear reactor was blown away by too much pressure, I too, was blown away by the caliber of Chernobyl as a miniseries. From the very first moment, it was able to effectively communicate the tension of the situation and the magnitude of the disaster by Legasov’s first words. The air of danger was palpalable as he tries to sidestep the KGB to release his expose to a secret recipient. The rest of the events that followed was just a complete shock.

WHO’S TO BLAME? Anattoly Dyatlov (Paul Ritter) runs the room for the failed safety test.

I was taken aback by the lack of preparation of the employees at the power plant in reacting to the disaster and I was appalled that there were no available protective gears, even for those who work so closely with the reactor. The first responders broke my heart, especially Vasily, who went into the building after witnessing his colleague get severely burned just by touching the graphite.

FACED WITH DEATH. Firefighter Vasily comes face to face with his mortality as he responds to the fateful call. 

In the same vein, I was just about ready to pull out the hair of his wife Lyudmilla, who knowingly risked the life of their unborn child by exposing it to radiation when she was repeatedly warned against touching her husband post disaster. I get it. They were in love. But she was already allowed to be near him but to defy orders of medical professionals just to show her love? Come on.

NO TOUCHING. Lyudmilla defies the advise of the nurses and gets touchy with her husband, who is rapidly dying because of radiation exposure. 

Understanding how the radiation kills depending on the level of exposure was terrifying. How can a person lose his entire face in a matter of moments? We find out through this drama. As more details are revealed and the scope of the disaster grew, I was stumped at how most of the details of this disaster was kept under wraps. So much so that most of the information remained a mystery until the miniseries came out.

I was a big fan of the musical scoring for this series. It was subtle, intense, and it was consistent, like a soft humming in the background — whether it be the sound of the dosimeter or a gentle ringing, it accompanied each of the characters’ moves and added to that surreal feeling that they must have felt heading into the unknown. I was also impressed by the writing in the series and how they managed to tell the story of Chernobyl along with the evolution of the characters involved. By the fifth episode, it would be a surprise if one didn’t get goosebumps after hearing Legasov’s testimony. It was honest, it was raw, it was moving and it applied not only to the Chernobyl disaster but governments throughout the world who choose to lead with lies.

DOOMED MEN. Comrade Shcherbina and Professor Legasov discuss their plan of action and their own mortality as they watch each drop of the boron and sand on Reactor Building 4.

While the reaction of the party and the officials were understandable for the Soviet Union, I was terrified at how quickly they brushed aside the magnitude of the disaster at first, stamping down legitimate concerns and grandstanding with obvious platitudes. In the first place, it was pride and dishonesty that started the problem but even until the end, those who were responsible chose not to take accountability for the role in the deaths of thousands to clean up the mess they started.

I was a big fan of Comrade Boris Shcherbina throughout the series. He understood his role in the party and yet, he also understood his duty to his people. He needed to put his life on the line to save his countrymen and his country from utter destruction and he did it without raising a fuss. From a stubborn traditional politician, Comrade Shcherbina became the most invested in cleaning up Chernobyl and protecting its environs from further radiation. With the same bullheadedness, he put his foot down and made things happen. If another person had been sent to Chernobyl, they might have given up within the first week. I also thought the miners were amazing, especially their cheeky and cantankerous chief Andrei Glukhov (Alex Ferns). He was all business, super practical and he got the job done in record time.

THE SCIENCE OF IT. Legasov and Khomyuk try to get to the bottom of the incident to prevent further disaster.

I am relieved that despite what happened to him in real life, the legacy of Professor Legasov is relived by this HBO miniseries, and protected by his comrades in the scientific community. He was called to action and he did so willingly despite the cost to his life. He bravely spoke up and spurred action where Russians would have just as easily lived in peace now knowing that the design errors in their nuclear plants were a threat to their lives too. The character of Ulana Khomyuk (Emily Watson), while she was fictional, served as a beacon of hope for the truth to come out amid all the lies and the posturing. I also appreciate the nods to he heroes of Chernobyl, especially those who knew they were facing death and still did the job anyway.

BIOROBOTS. Left with no choice, 3,000 men are deliberately exposed to radiation to clean up graphite on the roof of Reactor Building 4.

All in all, I could safely say that Chernobyl is one of HBO’s best miniseries despite the lack of any A-listers on its roster. It was gripping. It was engaging. It was dramatic and shocking in all the right places. It took viewers to a journey through history into the most devastating nuclear disaster that threatened to wipe out an entire nation and more. It was a humbling to witness it and leaves one to contemplate one’s mortality in the face of today’s world challenges. I am awed.