On 26th April 1986 the Number 4 nuclear reactor at Chernobyl Power Station exploded, due to a combination of removal of safety protocols, construction error, and good old hubris. The contents of the reactor core spilled out into the surrounding area and this series covers how the disaster occurred, what happened afterwards, and how human and administrative factors hampered the people trying to prevent it from becoming a global disaster.
2019’s ‘Chernobyl’ gives us as accurate an account of the horrific events surrounding the largest nuclear disaster of all time that we’re ever likely to see, and some insight into the Soviet Union’s propaganda machines of the time.
For many people this series probably didn’t sound like that exciting a prospect on paper – it’s a fairly dry recreation of the events surrounding the disaster and features no dragons, meth deals or superheroes. But it manages to be a more engrossing watch than anything featuring those fantastic factors. In many ways this due to the fact that it has, in the most part, a fastidious need to stick to the facts of what happened and those facts are incredible enough in themselves. The show opens with the initial explosion in the first two or three minutes of the first episode, and from then on the pacing is impeccable – although many scenes comprise of nothing more than a group of dour Russian men in a room talking about statecraft there’s always something to grip you, whether it’s the dogged insistence of the engineers that there had been no explosion, or the incredible sacrifice of the firefighters who arrived on scene first. (For the record I’m considering this show relatively impossible to spoiler as it’s based on true events from 33 years ago!)
Full disclosure on my part – I am absolutely fascinated by this subject, and have been greedily consuming everything I can about Chernobyl and Pripyat for many years, so this series hits all the right spots, but even taking that into account this is an absolutely tremendous piece of filmmaking by both the cast and crew. Craig Mazin’s script is tight and economical and perfectly complements Johan Renck’s directorial style, both of which are perfect at portraying the bleakness of the situation and the brutalist architecture which takes up much of the screen. Jared Harris plays Valery Legasov, a nuclear physicist given the seemingly impossible task of cleaning up the disaster and preventing anyone outside of the Soviet Union from finding out the magnitude of the accident. He is supported by Stellan Skarsgård as Boris Scherbina and Emily Watson as Ulana Khomyuk, a composite character presenting the many scientists who supported the cleanup effort. I pick these three out because they’re the actors who appear onscreen the most, but you’d be challenged to find a single actor in this who isn’t excellently cast – Paul Ritter is playing very against type as the abrasive and secretive Dyatlo, the Deputy Engineer whose poor decisions add to the chain of events that lead to the explosion of Reactor 4.
And that’s where this series excels – showing us the little events, the hubristic decisions, the small support characters that all lead to the explosion we see right at the top of the series. Then as we see the recovery attempts and cleanup efforts being put into action, we also see the facts coming together and the knowledge of what actually happened becomes clear to both us as the viewers and the characters at the same time, culminating in the final episode where we finally see everything come together in the trials of those responsible and a glimpse of some of the events prior to the explosion, which would not have had nearly the same gravitas if we’d not endured the horror of the full aftermath prior to seeing them.
Every bit of praise you’ve read about this series is richly deserved. It’s meticulously accurate, and in the few places where it has veered from the truth for dramatic or pacing purposes the changes are both merited and understandable. Basically, this is a masterpiece and I can’t recommend it more.
At time of writing ‘Chernobyl’ is the highest rated thing on IMDB, and quite rightly so. In creating some of the most horrific TV this year without deviating from the real events, ‘Chernobyl’ shows us that there’s nothing more horrific than the truth.
Chernobyl is produced by HBO in association with Sky UK and can be watched on Sky Catch Up or NOW TV.
Richard deValmont is one of the hosts of Bela Lugosi’s Shed, a podcast exploring Horror in all its chilling forms. The podcast covers everything from classic horror novels and films through to modern computer games and music. The podcast is also broadcast three times a week on Bunkazilla UK.