Everything about HBO and Sky Atlantic’s Chernobyl mini-series is a breath of fresh air. The riveting five-part hourlong created, exec produced and written by American Craig Mazin and directed by Swede Johan Renck begins with a sombre bookend twenty-four months after the fateful explosion.
We open in Moscow as former Deputy Director of the Kurchatov Institute of Atomic Energy, Valery Legasov (The Terror’s Jared Harris) and his cat sit in their dingy high-rise apartment recording chilling confessions onto audio cassette. The episode’s first words, Legasov’s question “What is the cost of lies?” boldly sets up the series’ thematic question with an efficiency so brutal that there’s never any doubt that this show is about.
The Soviet system acts as the perfect super-ego to Legasov’s id and the nuclear explosion is merely the inciting incident for what follows: Chernobyl is an investigation into The Truth and, as the world descends back into lies, disinformation and madness, this story couldn’t have come at a more relevant time.
The bookend opening ends, and a title card is replaced by one which reads “Two years and one minute earlier” transporting us 600 kilometres to the V. I. Lenin Nuclear Power Plant near the Ukraine/Belarus border on 26 April 1986. One of the sleepy, night-gowned 50,000 inhabitants of Pripyat is almost knocked off her feet by a shockwave and a tiny glowing speck on the horizon.
Vodka-swilling crowds gather outside to watch the Ghostbusters light show spilling out of the breached fourth reactor. And then it hits you: “What the fuck are you people doing?” you plead to your television. “Run!” or “Get out! Drive your Yugos and Trabants as far away as you can!”
But they can’t hear you above the Siberian wind rolling in from the northeast, the whir of fire trucks, the industrial hum, Icelandic cellist Hildur Guðnadóttir’s haunting score and the Lesser Spotted Eastern European (Gregorius Samsarus) cockroach-like sounds from off-the-scale Geiger counters.
As the world-building expands, local fire-fighters, like fellow The Terror alum Adam Nagaitis, are deployed and, from the second we arrive at the radioactive-leaking power plant, our emotions are put through the wringer on a ride that lasts the next fifty minutes.
Proud nuclear scientists argue over the seriousness of the accident, control room subordinates panic, Soviet-era safety equipment malfunctions, disillusioned pencil-pushers try to save face and propagandist politicians lie… all without the slightest whiff of hazmat suits or iodine pills.
And that’s what makes the tension so insanely palpable that you feel physically sick watching events unfurl.
By the end of the first episode, I wished I could binge-watch this Chernobyl mini-series in one sitting.
By the end of the second, I was physically panting. This show really is that emotionally exhausting.
Chernobyl really does rock you to the core. Somehow, the writer of the Scary Movie and The Hangover franchise has shaped historical source material into a terrifically authentic, riveting emotional rollercoaster and the best TV show of the year.
The denial and cover-up to keep the accident from the poor Soviet people and the rest of the world; the heroes versus the contemptuous character-barriers Mazin has created or composited are the perfect backdrop for all the conflict and tension that every TV drama requires. In one scene, Legasov is given a choice when a random woman in a hotel lobby asks: “Should we be worried?”
“No.” he replies.
In one word, this hero has not only refused the call but also made himself complicit, for “the time has come… to decide whether you are gonna be the problem or are you are gonna be the solution.”
Add the always superb Stellan Skarsgård as a cynical Moscow bureaucrat, Emily Watson as a whistleblowing nuclear physicist and complete the ensemble of POV storytellers with Jessie Buckley as the wife of one of the irradiated firemen and… light the blue touch-paper, and retreat to a safe distance because Chernobyl is visceral and powerful television.
In focusing on this misplaced pride in Communism and characters who either tow or decry the official line, Craig Mazin has created an ‘mazin’, near perfect television hotbed; a pressure cooker just waiting to go off, where every line, every action and every visual conveys the desperation, chaos and incompetence which made the disaster so much more severe.
Hindsight is 20/20 and Mazin’s script and Johan Renck’s understated direction both understand and exploit this. The childlike naivety of every single character, including war generals, nurses, fire-fighters and nuclear physicists makes you scream “Don’t get any closer to that reactor, you fools” at your TV as their skin melts off their faces. Of course, we know the effects of radiation but these innocent workers and townsfolk do not because in the words of Valery Legasov:
“You are dealing with something that has never happened on this planet before.”
Featuring those so-ugly-they’re-beautiful brutalist highrise blocks that always slightly remind me of Gerry Anderson’s Thunderbirds or architects’ miniature models of soon-to-be-constructed, 1960’s Las Vegas hotels, the Lithuanian location is as perfect as the gloomy interiors and impeccable costume design.
In addition to creating a wonderfully bleak, grim colour palette (which I’m gonna call Soviet Grey) Renck’s action scenes knock you off your feet and haul you right into the belly of the Beluga whale so expertly that you feel your own skin is going to melt off your face any minute.
The fact that we viewers know the Chernobyl disaster killed an estimated 90,000 people (that’s thirty 9/11’s or sixty Titanics) makes the eerieness even harder to bear. When we see townsfolk watching the shaft of light that is the core’s reactor leaking radioactive particles like something out of The Battle of New York, or children playing in the falling radioactive “snow”, these visuals just fill you with utter dread… for these were real children. This all happened and you know it’s gonna get worse and worse because someone, at some point, is gonna have to go in there before millions die horribly.
Part eerie horror movie, part 70’s disaster flick and part realsatire, Mazin’s efficient script, some incredibly immersive sound design and Renck’s gorgeous visual storytelling are so masterful that they suck you in and spit you out. But while Chernobyl is one of those rare shows that makes me mouth “THIS is what fucking television making is about” I’m actually glad I can’t binge-watch all five hours, as it will take my nerves to critical mass and cause a complete emotional meltdown.
Chernobyl continues on HBO on Sunday 19th May if you’re in The States and a day later on Sky Atlantic
You can listen to John August’s screenwriting podcast, Scriptnotes which Craig Mazin co-hosts here