Chernobyl Is a Gruesome, Riveting Fable

The new five-part HBO miniseries is part historical drama, part grim disquisition on the toll of devaluing the truth.

Stellan Skarsgård, Jared Harris, and Emily Watson play scientists and bureaucrats trying to stanch nuclear catastrophe in 'Chernobyl'
Stellan Skarsgård, Jared Harris, and Emily Watson play scientists and bureaucrats trying to stanch nuclear catastrophe in Chernobyl. (HBO)

There’s a scene early in Chernobyl where a man pries open a metal door and accidentally looks right into the exposed core of a nuclear reactor—a blinding, lethal, white snowstorm of poison and chaos that scorches him where he stands. This is, you might reason, not a bad metaphor for life online in 2019: the surprises, the gravitational yank of innocuous portals, the toxic aftershock. And then one episode later, Ulana Khomyuk (played by Emily Watson) has a conversation with a Soviet apparatchik about the “incident” at Chernobyl that brings the analogy fully home. “I’ve been assured there’s no problem,” the bureaucrat says. “I’m telling you that there is,” Khomyuk replies. “I prefer my opinion to yours,” he says. “I’m a nuclear physicist,” she counters, adding, “Before you were deputy secretary, you worked in a shoe factory.”

Craig Mazin (The Hangover Part II and III, Scary Movie 3 and 4), who created and wrote all five episodes of Chernobyl, isn’t being subtle here. When societies undermine not only expertise but also the nature of truth itself, he seems to be saying, catastrophe inevitably follows. Hence the twitchy panic the first hour of Chernobyl induces as it charts the immediate aftermath of the infamous 1986 explosion at a nuclear power plant in northern Soviet Ukraine. After an opening interlude in which Valery Legasov (Jared Harris) records his memories on cassette tapes that he hides from the KGB, the series jumps back two years, to mere seconds after reactor No. 4 has apparently blown up. While a series of junior engineers try to grapple with the scale of the crisis, their supervisor, Anatoly Dyatlov (Paul Ritter), rejects their analysis and berates them for being hysterical. “We need to get water moving through the core,” he urges. “There is no core,” an engineer replies. “It exploded. The core exploded.” In other words, it’s not the kind of event that’s discussed in the training manual.

This is essentially how the miniseries proceeds: Scientists grow extremely alarmed at the fact that there’s an open uranium core gushing trillions of particles into the air every hour; government officials respond that such a crisis is inconceivable and they should just put the fire out already. (“The official position of the state,” a character says at one point, “is that global nuclear catastrophe is not possible in the Soviet Union.”) Harris’s Legasov, a nuclear physicist, is called in to help, although almost everything he says is ignored. The action veers between ludicrous, Death of Stalin–style farce (the radiation level is reported as 3.6 roentgens per second, since that’s as high as the counters go) and grindingly tense body horror (babies burned bright red, incessant retching, open sores). Johan Renck, who directed all five episodes, instills a sense of visceral fear that culminates in one striking scene where nearby townsfolk bask joyfully with their children under falling flakes of deadly nuclear ash.

For Legasov, Watson’s Khomyuk, and Boris Shcherbina—a party official charged with overseeing the crisis, played by Stellan Skarsgård—the challenge is two-pronged: They have to somehow contain a leak that could kill millions of people, and contaminate farmland and drinking water for centuries, while wrestling with officials who deny the evidence offered by their own eyes. (“You didn’t see graphite on the ground,” Dyatlov rants in one scene, shortly before vomiting and passing out. “You didn’t. Because it’s not there.”) Khomyuk has a kind of whisper network of fellow female scientists who convey coded information over bugged phones using the periodic table. Shcherbina growls, furrows his brow, and calls Moscow. Legasov delivers speeches that convey surprisingly thorough and digestible information on how nuclear reactors work while also putting the Chernobyl disaster in context. The fire they’re looking at, he explains in one scene, “is giving off nearly twice the radiation of the bomb in Hiroshima, and that’s every single hour.”

All three actors are titans, and they manage to carry off dialogue that could be cumbersome in lesser hands. Skarsgård and Harris both exude weariness like perspiration, with Harris’s features stretched permanently into a grimace and Skarsgård so craggy, he seems carved out of granite. In one scene, Shcherbina delivers a speech about the Soviet history of endurance and sacrifice that’s memorably rousing and nihilistic at the same time. Watson has the quieter, subtler role, but there’s rarely a scene in which her presence doesn’t command attention. She plays Khomyuk with a gentle, semi-Slavic intonation that serves the character and tends to be less distracting than the aggressively English accents of almost everyone else. While not much wears faster than bad Vladivostok burrs from RADA-trained artists, the cadences here are so extremely British that cultural dissonance sometimes sets in.

Mazin clearly wants to get at the scope of the disaster by looking at the breadth of the lives it affected, meaning that there are subplots involving a firefighter’s stranded wife (Jessie Buckley) and the conscripted soldiers charged with killing all the irradiated pets left behind. But without time to really dig into their stories, these plotlines divert from the more urgent intrigue of how Chernobyl might be abated. (David Dencik is wonderful as Mikhail Gorbachev, who declares, in one scene, that Soviet power comes from “perception of our power,” which is why it’s so necessary to keep the truth about the crisis contained.) Some scenes feel sluggish, though the best moments toggle between frantic action and leisurely, deliberate style. Renck particularly seems to relish the ’70s aesthetic of the Soviet Union, pausing over swirled carpet patterns in shades of brown and clashing umber curtains.

Chernobyl is a thorough historical analysis, a gruesome disaster epic replete with oozing blisters and the ominous rattle of Geiger counters, and a mostly riveting drama. But it’s also a warning—one that straddles the line between prescience and portentousness. Whether you apply its message to climate change, the “alternative facts” administration of the current moment, or anti-vaccine screeds on Facebook, Mazin’s moral stands: The truth will eventually come out. The question he poses, however self-consciously, is whether hundreds of thousands of lives must always be sacrificed to misinformation along the way.