Chernobyl (2019)

"There's only one place in the entire facility where you will find graphite: inside the core. If there's graphite on the ground outside, it means it wasn't a control system tank that exploded. It was the reactor core. It's open!""There's only one place in the entire facility where you will find graphite: inside the core. If there's graphite on the ground outside, it means it wasn't a control system tank that exploded. It was the reactor core. It's open!"

“There’s only one place in the entire facility where you will find graphite: inside the core. If there’s graphite on the ground outside, it means it wasn’t a control system tank that exploded. It was the reactor core. It’s open!”

1:23:45. The time signifies the exact moment reactor #4 at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant exploded. One of the worst man-made disasters in human history in the last 50 years. Learning about what actually happened that morning of Saturday April 6, 1986 can be tricky since most of the accounts are labeled as classified by the Soviet Union. But what we do know of this tragedy that has affected millions and what can be pieced together is downright shocking and horrific. Chernobyl takes a more focused approach on the stories the general public would never have known about if it wasn’t for those who spoke out about the terrors.

Chernobyl is based on the stories of those who fought in the trenches – the first responders to the event, those who risked their lives to stop a total meltdown and those who worked tirelessly to contain the spread of information. Imagine if a nuclear explosion happened in your hometown, how would your country react? Would those in power stop at nothing to stop the truth or would they take the blame and work on fixing the problem to save generations. The closest disaster to Chernobyl is the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in Japan. Not quite on the same scale as the Chernobyl disaster but equally just as horrible since a Tsunami and earthquake succeeded the explosion. 

Chernobyl creator and writer Craig Mazin tells a dense and vicious story. There isn’t anything to celebrate beyond the minor victories of the miners who risked their lives or the actions of the main characters. Most of it is pieced together and based on the book Voices from Chernobyl by author Nobel laureate Svetlana Alexievich where she interviews residents and those who witnessed firsthand the disaster. This is why one of the main storylines in Craig’s 5-episode story involves lesser-known people like Lyudmilla Ignatenko (Jessie Buckley), the pregnant wife of firefighter first responder Vasily Ignatenko (Adam Nagaitis) who unfortunately lost his life being so close to the radiation weeks after exposure.

“They didn’t hurt me. They let a pregnant woman in with — oh, it doesn’t matter. They were stupid. I was stupid. Dyatlov won’t talk to me. Akimov, yes, Toptunov, yes, but… Valery, Akimov… his face was gone.”

Choosing to focus of these particular characters makes the disaster more difficult to view because these are real people who suffered at the hand of negligence, lies and cover-ups. Their love is a complete juxtaposition to the other horrors that are playing out. All Lyudmilla wanted is to be near Vasily despite the risk and countless nurses, doctors and military unsuccessfully stopping her. The entire time as she is breaking hospital protocol, here I am screaming at the TV for her to listen to reason and those in charge. You’re going to kill yourself coming in contact with your husband. But that’s not what happens, and the reality is absolutely crushing. 

While these deeply tragic side stories play out, the main plot follows deputy director of the Kurchatov Institute Valery Legasov (Jared Harris) and a Council of Ministers deputy chairman Boris Shcherbina (Stellan Skarsgård) as two polar opposites within the Soviet Union. Boris is a career man with an agenda that mirrors Mikhail Gorbachev (David Dencik) and the KGB. While Lagasov is a nuclear inorganic chemist who believes finding out the truth to this “accident” is more important than the covered up lies the state wishes to spread.

The two men are incredibly reluctant to work together despite their differences in perspectives but once they get to work, a friendship beyond work blossoms. At first, Boris is ignorant to the truth because he wants to move up in his career and going against the KGB and the state means only one thing – a bullet. Once Boris breaks that cyclical thinking he’s able to see the severity of the situation listening to reason and accepting what Lagasov is saying as the truth. Harris and Skarsgård give career defining performances in their complex characters. At the end of the day, it’s not about them, it’s about the future generations who will suffer things worse than death because of what happened. Mazin and director of the 5-episode miniseries Johan Renck put the blame on one person who never shy’s away from his convictions even when he’s proven wrong with every single piece of information: deputy chief engineer Anatoly Dyatlov (Paul Ritter).

“A nuclear plant in Sweden has detected radiation and identified it as a byproduct of our fuel. The Americans took satellite photos. The reactor building, the smoke, the fire. The whole world knows. The wind has been blowing toward Germany. They’re not letting children play outside… in Frankfurt.”

Besides the strong performances by all actors and actresses, Chernobyl’s true strength lies in its hauntingly tragic score by Hildur Guðnadóttir and the special effects and makeup. Hildur, who composed the music used sound recordings from an actual nuclear powerplant, brilliant is an understatement. The makeup and special effects are creepy yet beautiful so much so that you can’t look away whenever someone with extreme burns all over their bodies are on screen. 

Much can be said about adaptations about historical events. How much actually happened and what is fiction and Hollywood influence. Chernobyl gives a ton of information to digest and may portray some in villainous roles that weren’t actually villains. For one the character Ulana Khomyuk (Emily Watson) isn’t real, rather a composite character based on the actual scientists who investigated the disaster. Certain liberties must be taken which isn’t necessarily a bad thing for the scope of the plot, but it will always anger someone.

Creating a show depicting a disaster that can embarrass an entire country even today is a giant risk that isn’t ingested the same way by everyone. Even if Chernobyl is a masterpiece in storytelling, it absolutely is, not everyone sees it that way and will do everything in their power to ban the fictionization of the actual event. Acting, music, special effects, story are all brilliant that creates a horrifyingly grounded depiction of an unnatural nuclear disaster. 5 out of 5.

Chernobyl premiered in 2019 and can be streamed on HBO Max. Chernobyl has a Rotten Tomatoes score of 96%. Chernobyl was created for TV by Craig Mazin and stars Jared Harris, Stellan Skarsgård, Jessie Buckley, Emily Watson, Paul Ritter, David Dencik & Adam Nagaitis.

So, tell me, have you seen Chernobyl and if so, what do you think about it? Do you agree or disagree with me? Comment below or send me an email and let me know what you think.

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