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I don’t like it when my dad goes on business trips–but what I do like is when he comes home and tells us about all the cool things he watched on his flights! First he came home singing the praises of the Tolkien biopic, which I reviewed here–and then he returned waxing eloquent about Chernobyl*, which, I will admit, has become my new obsession.
This stunning 5-part HBO miniseries (and the highest-rated TV show on the Internet Movie Database) tells the story of the worst nuclear disaster in human history. On April 26, 1986, one of the reactors at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in the Ukraine exploded; the radiation released from the explosion was 400 times stronger than the radiation released by the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945 (yes, you read that correctly), and the fallout spread over a much larger area.
The Ukraine, of course, was part of the repressive but faltering Soviet Union. Already embroiled in the Arms Race, the Soviet State couldn’t really afford such an emergency…or an embarrassment. For days they tried to keep a tight lid on what had happened. They didn’t even let the people of Pripyat, the nearest town, know what was really going on. The townspeople went about their lives, pretty much unaware that they were being quickly or slowly poisoned, depending on how close they were to the plant…
Until a laboratory in Sweden picked up outrageous radiation levels. Horror spread through Europe like wildfire, and the Soviets had to admit to the world and their own people that they had a problem. Or did they? Did they admit to everything? How many lies were told about what really happened at Chernobyl?
This is the question Chernobyl* poses. As we follow the three main characters–scientist Valery Legasov (Jared Harris), bureaucrat Boris Shcherbina (Stellan Skarsgård), and physicist Ulana Khomyuk (a composite character played by the indomitable Emily Watson)–we quickly realize that they are caught in a web of deception, ignorance, and intrigue.
The State can’t afford mass panic…so it lies to its own people about the danger. The meltdown must be stopped before it causes another explosion or contaminates the water table, so the State throws everything into the attempt…including its own people. The State can’t let the West know that it’s been dealt a mortal blow…so, again, it lies to the world.
And yet if Chernobyl paints an infuriating picture of the Soviet Union (as well it should!), it also paints a heroic picture of the ordinary people who fought their own war against nuclear catastrophe. Ludmilla Ignatenko stops at nothing to be with her firefighter husband, even though he’s dying of Acute Radiation Sickness (and possibly irradiating her and their unborn baby). The three “Chernobyl Divers” risk their lives to drain the water tanks beneath the reactor, preventing a second explosion that could’ve left the Ukraine and Belarus uninhabitable for centuries. An army of brusque coal miners dig tunnels beneath the reactor, knowing full well they’ll probably die from inhaling radioactive dust–while a host of ill-equipped doctors and nurses do what they can for the sick and injured workers.
Last but not least, there is Legasov, quietly wrestling with his own fear and guilt; Shcherbina, a self-proclaimed “career party man,” rapidly losing his faith in the State; and Khomyuk, boldly urging her unlikely allies to tell the truth about the negligence that caused the disaster in the first place.
“When the truth offends, we lie and lie until we can no longer remember it is even there, but it is still there,” Legasov tells a packed courtroom in the climactic final episode. “Every lie we tell incurs a debt to the truth. Sooner or later, that debt is paid. That is how an RBMK reactor core explodes: lies.”
Chernobyl* isn’t for the faint of heart. There’s strong language, one scene with (non-sexual) nudity, and several gruesome depictions of Acute Radiation Sickness. Yet it keeps you on the edge of your seat the whole time. How the heck are they going to stop this fire–or prevent that thermal explosion–or evacuate a whole city–or get their machines to work in this radioactive environment? Oh, and tell me: how does an RBMK reactor explode?! (I finally got so desperate that I spoiled it for myself and went to Wikipedia. I’ve filed my new knowledge under “Things I Didn’t Know I Needed to Know Until Now.”)
But the most poignant thing about Chernobyl is that it leaves you caring so deeply about the characters–especially Legasov, Khomyuk, and Ludmilla. At the end of each episode, you just want them all to be okay. While the show doesn’t sugarcoat the cruelty of the Soviet government, it does humanize its citizens–something that, I believe, is badly needed when it comes to any story about Russia.
In the same way that The Book Thief and The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society humanize ordinary Germans during World War II, Chernobyl* brings you to a place of true sympathy and compassion for the small and the brave of the Soviet Union at the end of the Cold War. There are many reasons why I’d recommend it–at least to older viewers–but that one is near the top of the list.