Everybody should know that there was an explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant on the evening of 26th April 1986 that could have ended life on earth, and has left dire consequences that still plague the planet not just to this day, but for centuries to come.
Nobody should be put off from watching Chernobyl because it is harrowing and often devastating. It is also a magisterial piece of work and easily amongst the finest achievements in the history of television drama. It pulls no punches in its depiction of a tragedy and its appalling aftermath, blighting the lives of countless thousands of people and animals, but it examines the disaster without losing sight of the human story, through a thrilling, enthralling and deeply affecting five episodes. This reviewer sobbed during every episode – I cannot remember the last time I was so emotionally invested in television drama.
It’s impossible not to be as impressed as shaken by the experience of seeing the story of Chernobyl unfold. How rare it is to see television made this well. From the script (Craig Mazin) to the direction (Johan Renck) and leading performances (Jared Harris, Emily Watson, Stellan Skarsgard), Chernobyl is phenomenally good. In its vision and scope, it is cinematic and impressively creative. Moments such as the radioactive dust filtering in slow motion through the hair of assembled onlookers (and the heart-rending yet inevitable pay off at the end of the final episode), to the pulsating ninety-seconds of clean-up on the plant rooftop live long in the memory for weeks after viewing. Chernobyl is surely destined to become timeless television that everybody remembers seeing for decades to come. It has the same power as 1984’s Threads, with the greater impact for knowing it is based on an historical event.
The series depicts the explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in the Ukraine in 1986 in its opening episode. The story evolves from the immediate aftermath to the attempts to suppress the truth about what has happened, and the difficulty the investigating scientist Valery Legasov (Jared Harris) has in securing the assistance he needs to contain the catastrophe. It leads to an examination of exactly why the disaster occurred – and more importantly, why it could so easily have been averted.
Jared Harris (Mad Men) plays Legasov, a Russian scientist charged with helping the inquiry into the disaster, in part because he is the first to detect in a bowdlerised report that the core has been destroyed, which the managers at the plant strenuously deny. The most fascinating relationship in the series is his interplay with Boris Shcherbina (Stellan Skarsgard), a party loyalist with a seat at General Secretary Gorbachev’s table, who is charged with heading the inquiry. At first, Boris detests Legasov’s very presence, aggrieved that Gorbachev insists he takes a scientist along with him to investigate. Similarly, Legasov is appalled by Boris’ ignorance and his slavish adherence to the lines of party politics, and his pig-headedness almost gets them killed before they even arrive at the power plant. Slowly, a mutual respect develops between the two men from different worlds and with very different personalities. The third key player is Emily Watson, as the fictionalised Ulana Khomyuk, a research scientist who detects dangerously high levels of radiation from hundreds of miles away, who immediately sets out to help Legasov uncover the truth, and then force the authorities to admit to it.
All three leading actors are outstanding and magnetic in their parts, imbuing the series with what feels like real human beings. That said, the plaudits must go to Jared Harris, who has already established that he can depict complex characters with whom audiences have a natural affinity and sympathy. His portrayal of Legasov is one of the finest performances you are ever likely to see, and deserves to go down in television history as a work of breath-taking truth and depth. Is there a better actor working today? Even when explaining complex scientific ideas, Harris is simply spellbinding.
There is another aspect to Chernobyl, and that is its excoriating criticism of the way in which the Soviet regime, and its Communist system of governance, was the poisonous ideology that inexorably led to the disaster. There is no better expose of the inhumanity and inefficiency of socialism than Chernobyl. The final episode is an examination of the lies and deception of government, and the necessity of the human spirit to rise above the powerful state to seek out and speak the truth. Gorbachev himself wrote that the Chernobyl Disaster heralded the end of the USSR. Craig Mazin understands exactly why this is true: the disaster exposed the lies and propaganda an empire was built upon, and the consequent cracks to its structure once the truth was spoken proved fatal. History dooms humans to repeat the same mistakes. Chernobyl is so perfectly brilliant because it serves as a warning against an authoritarian state, whilst also celebrating truth, and the need that lives in a special few of us to find it and tell it, regardless of the consequences.
Cast: Jared Harris, Stellan Skarsgard, Emily Watson, Sam Troughton, Paul Ritter, Con O’Neill Writer: Craig Mazin Director: Johan Renck Released by: Acorn Media Running time: 308 mins Release date: 29th July 2019 Buy now