HBO’s mini series, Chernobyl is one of the best television series that has being made in recent years. Chernobyl covers the story of the Chernobyl Crisis all the way from the moment of the crisis to the uncovering of what happened to the powerplant.
The story starts with the suicide of the protagonist of the series, the head of the commission that investigated what happened in Chernobyl, Valery Legasov (played by Jared Harris). The story takes place through his notes and findings on the Chernobyl Nuclear Disaster.
Episode one is one of the best opening episodes I have seen, with the truly frightening look at what happens when people are in the middle of the a nuclear powerplant melting down. The manager of the Chernobyl Nuclear Powerplant, Anatoly Dyatlov, not realising what had happened and sending people back into the breach, shows a theme in this series, between the bravery and self sacrifice of many people to prevent this disaster being worse and the incompetence and dishonesty of the state bureaucracy in dealing with the problem.
The people of Chernobyl and the nearby city of Pripyat (now abandoned), were left completely exposed to the fall out of this disaster, and the party hacks and bureaucrats believed them to be expendable. One of the most interesting scenes is when the local fire service is trying to put out the fire, there is a piece of graphite (one of the toughest minerals known to man). Another interesting scene was when the people of Pripyat looked at the colours in the sky, after the fallout of the disaster, not realising that they were directly exposed to lethal radiation doses, which can bring about a truly horrible death from carcinogens.
Episode two deals with the initial reaction from the Soviet government, to the Chernobyl Crisis. Soviet scientist, Ulana Khomyuk (played by Emily Watson), notices what happens in Chernobyl, information is passed to Legasov, and Legasov argues and persuades Mikhail Gorbachev , that the disaster is serious. Politburo member, Boris Shcherbina (played by Stellan Skarsgard) was sent to the Chernobyl site, with Legasov and it is a cold relationship at first. The lack of information given to the people, means that the local government of Chernobyl had being fighting the fire from the nuclear powerplant wrong.
Legasov was placed in charge of the clean up, as he is an expert on nuclear power plants and orders that the powerplant be cleaned by sand and boron. The government is forced to act through the intervention of an honest expert, people whom authoritarians don’t like.
Ulana Khomyuk is a composite character of the numerous scientists whose work on the Chernobyl Crisis saved millions and sometimes it is clear she is in numerous places at once, to advance the plot of the series.
Episode three. The scenes from the hospital in Moscow is truly frightening, with young fit men life just rotting away from radiation. Ulana Khomyuk is in the hospital to pick up the testimony of the people who were in the Chernobyl nuclear powerplant that day. She however draws the attention of the secret police and ends up in prison. The main story of this episode is to protect the water supply of Ukraine (Dnieper River), from the fall out of the Chernobyl Crisis. The government sends in local miners to fix this problem. It is truly heart rendering to see the government send people to almost certain death. The scene at the end of the funeral of the firefighters of Pripyat who got killed by radiation from the fallout of the disaster was truly harrowing. They were buried in concrete to prevent radiation getting out. We get an insight from the view of the people of Pripyat by the widow of one of the firemen, Lyudmilla Ignatenko (played by Jessie Buckley).
Episode four. The main story of this episode is to clean up the roof top of the Chernobyl Nuclear Powerplant. The Soviet Union cannot build a robot that can withstand that much radiation, and cannot import one from a NATO country, without telling the full story. The government eventually has to use conscripts in ninety second shifts to clean up the site of nuclear debris. Legasov is sent by the Soviet government to Vienna, to present the Chernobyl Crisis, the way they want the world to see. In the exposition between Legasov, Khomyuk and Shcherbina, we see that the security part of the Soviet government had known that such a disaster was possible, but did nothing, because they had to sell to the world, that their technology was up to date.
The episode ends with the truly depressing moment when a conscript and two career soldiers are sent into Pripyat to kill all the dogs, as they are so contaminated, they are a danger to other living things. The dogs are also buried in concrete.
Episode five shows the viewer, how and why the Chernobyl Crisis came about. The management of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant were certainly incompetent and negligent, taking chances that they shouldn’t have, but the management of the Powerplant did not have access to the total information on the structure of the RMBK reactor. The Soviet government put the three people who were in charge of managing the Chernobyl Powerplant (Anatoly Dyatlov, Viktor Bryukhanov and Nikolai Fomin) on trial. Legasov and Khomyuk are determined to make sure that a Chernobyl style disaster never happens again.
During the trial, the three managers were found guilty, but Legasov puts evidence before the court, that the Chernobyl disaster was truly systemic failure by the government of the Soviet Union, and that there are sixteen reactors in the Soviet Union built similarly to the reactor that failed. Legasov’s career is over as the Soviet Security State doesn’t like being shown up to be incompetent.
Five reasons why Chernobyl is great are:
- The Story: Chernobyl tells an interesting and compelling story, that shows the audience how and why the Chernobyl disaster happened. Every episode of Chernobyl tells a story and that is always the sign of a great show. There may be slight historical and scientific inaccuracies, but it is not obvious to the viewer, so it’s nit-picking territory.
- The acting. The three protagonists of Chernobyl (Legasov, Shcherbina and Khomyuk) are played by very good actors (Harris, Skarsgard and Watson) who deliver great performances. The actors don’t go into the annoying habit of fake Russian accents, which is good.
- The cinematography. Chernobyl also looks real and authentic. Chernobyl was shot in former countries of the Soviet Union (Lithuania and Ukraine), which is good, because most Soviet cities look the same. The camera really captures all the moments in Chernobyl making everything relevant to the viewer.
- Themes: Chernobyl has interesting themes about the inefficiencies of totalitarian regimes. The Soviet Union, was a society where contracting the party line of the Communist Party had negative consequences. Whilst, the 1980s was far removed from the terror of Stalin’s time in charge, this was still a place where the concept of thinking for yourself was dangerous. All throughout the series, the Communist Party and the bureaucracy of the Soviet Union was shown to full of people, whose sole interest was protecting themselves and the party, and this made the disaster far worse then it should have been. The man, whose work saved millions of people from dying from horrible and early death eventually had his career destroyed and was isolated, and committed suicide as a consequence, while the people at the top who knowing allowed unsafe reactors and suppressed information to slow down the response were never brought to justice for their negligence.
- Everything is relevant. Mini-series are sometimes among the best television, because it cut’s out filler. It is part of what makes Chernobyl great. Every scene in Chernobyl is relevant to the story, which is the first thing in making a great television show. The audience goes on a journey, which is full of truly sad and depressing scenes from the day of the Chernobyl Crisis and being witnesses to what was going on a ground level to the fifth episode, which show how and why on an institutional level, why Chernobyl happened.
(C). Ferdia O’Mahony. 2021.
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