The mini-series “Chernobyl” looks away like a political thriller. As an intensely exciting film about conspiracies, intimidation, paranoia, heroes and villains and just about the nearer end of the world. You regularly sit on the edge of your seat, hold (almost literally) your heart and empathize with the main characters. The bitter thing is that this is not a thought-out story, but bitter truth. A sadly all too true story about misplaced vanity and pride, about moral poverty – not to say inhumanity and malice – and simply about an unprecedented tragic “accident”. This is not a series that you work through with a bowl of popcorn and then continue cheerfully with your life. This makes an impression; you have to think about this for a moment.
Now you can say that this reality check is purely the result of the seriousness of the actual event that has taken place, but then you ignore the persuasiveness of the series and the quality of the people behind and in front of the camera. Because just go ahead and keep a series about an accident at a nuclear power plant fascinating for almost five and a half hours. And not only that: to make a series that exudes authenticity, with a largely non-Russian (or non-Ukrainian) cast.
Regarding this last aspect, this is a small smear – if you can call it that – on production. Because yes, the degree of authenticity that is achieved is admirable, but you cannot ignore the thought that it would have been more true if “local” actors had been chosen. Of course the language is only part of the interpretation and the question is whether actors of the same caliber could have been found, but it is still strange to watch all English-speaking people in an originally Russian / Ukrainian looking and feeling environment have to hit. And if another – English speaking – stand by President Gorbachev appears, the alienation is complete.
But as soon as you just accept this and concentrate on what is happening and being said, it’s no problem to get carried away by the series, which is divided into five episodes of over an hour. The first episode consists almost entirely of a “live” registration of the accident. What is the situation at the exchange, who is involved? The hectic, the panic. To call it oppressive is an understatement.
Subsequently (and in later episodes) the news reaches the people (including government leaders) who must properly assess the situation and take action. Immediately the consequences of the accident are not properly estimated. That is, in the most favorable case, for example when it comes to the stiff but ultimately reasonable vice-president of the Council of Ministers Boris Shcherbina (Stellan Skarsgård). It is much more serious that other (government) leaders and “party members” want to cover the entire “incident” under the carpet. It seems that the radiation is not too bad and there is no question of evacuation. Just close it up and tidy it up, and we don’t have to talk about it anymore.
But unfortunately, there has indeed been a disaster in which thousands of people have been exposed to radiation, many of whom will die at least within ten years if it is not much earlier. Nuclear scientist Valery Legasov (a great Jared Harris) knows how to value the situation, just like his (fictional) fellow scientist Ulana Khomyuk.
Although Legasov is first and foremost a calling in the desert, he still manages to get Boris Shcherbina to his side fairly quickly. He knows, thank God, to arrange almost all the equipment and personnel that Legasov asks for – to prevent a much bigger disaster. No expense or effort is spared to get everything under control as quickly as possible. Sometimes people have to be sacrificed because they have to come close to the exploded reactor (core).
Legasov and Shcherbina will only proceed if there really is no other solution. However, it is shocking, to say the least how long it is to wait before evacuating the local population. Everything to prevent the outside world from getting a breath of this fiasco, which would mean a loss of face for the Russians. Only when radiation is detected in some places in Germany (from Chernobyl) and even children are no longer allowed to play outside, does Russia have to believe it. The Communist system, which keeps people under control and does not always put the right person in the right place, is revealed here in all its flaws. Sometimes the extra emphasis is placed on this in the dialogue, which is unnecessary and therefore makes the scene weaker, but this only happens sporadically.
“Chernobyl” unleashes a lot of anger and disbelief on the part of the viewer, who may be familiar with the incident, but not with such details, or the degree of deception and inhumanity. There is a realization that a people can be just as proud, humane, benevolent and righteous, you don’t start much when a whole nation holds you under a thumb with a web of lies and tactics of intimidation, threat and exclusion. But ‘Chernobyl’ is also about dealing with loss and injustice, (having to) perform inhuman acts, resigning oneself to your own end, standing for your principles, the resilience of man, and the solidarity that can prevail despite everything. .
Almost the entire series is interesting, stimulating, shocking. In the penultimate episode, the focus shifts momentarily from the oppressive work on the reactor and the finding of truth, to a young man who, with a couple of soldiers in an evacuated zone, has to shoot animals, because they are a danger to public health. It is terrible to see how even litters with puppies should be killed, and the effect this has on the young man who had never fired a shot in his life. Yet this piece reduces the intensity and threat that characterized the series up to that point. With the industrial sounds on the soundtrack, and the desolate, scarcely colored environments as a fitting background for the gloomy events and the shadowy political games played by the government.
Furthermore, “Chernobyl” is a nail bite from the beginning to the end. They are horrific facts that reach the viewer. Of course, the many thousands (probably tens of thousands) of deaths caused by the disaster is part of that, but the unbelievably proud attitude that has not exactly contributed to an early solution is truly unimaginable. They are lessons for the future. Not so for governments – who will not consciously improve life – or for journalists, scientists and other critical thinkers who must always look further and protect the citizens. With information … and the truth.