Director - Johan Renck
Cast - Jared Harris, Stellan Skarsgard, Emily Watson
Rating - 5/5
“Those destined to be hanged are not going to drown.” - Old Russian proverb
Vladimir Putin seemed to take perverse pleasure in relaying this information to filmmaker Oliver Stone during one of their widely-publicised interviews a couple of years ago. He said it with a smile on his face; a knowing smile, the smile of a man who had surrendered himself to whatever destiny has in store for him. Putin at the time had survived five assassination attempts, but couldn’t hide his annoyance at the fact that more had been made on the life of Fidel Castro.
On the 30th anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster, Putin in his speech applauded the ‘incomparable bravery and self-sacrifice of fire fighters, military personnel, experts and medics’, who in the immediate aftermath of the explosion risked their lives to save others’. The magnitude of the tragedy could have been immeasurably larger - at one point nearly 50 million lives were at risk - had these men not acted, Putin said. He was right, of course. But he was also wrong.
His carefully chosen words - the warmth, the superficiality - couldn’t be more thematically relevant to Chernobyl, the new five-part HBO miniseries, based on the immediate fallout of the worst nuclear power plant accident in history, and the subsequent government cover-up.
It’s a stunning achievement, thrilling and horrifying in equal measure, created and written by Craig Mazin of all people. He has to his credit two (of the worst) Hangover movies, the forgotten sequel to Snow White and the Huntsman, and the upcoming Charlie’s Angels reboot. For him to have written the best television show of 2019, and certainly, one of the best of the last five years, is yet another example of how, given the opportunity and the freedom, nothing can beat a storyteller’s passion.
The story begins on the terrible night, and is told through multiple perspectives - an expectant mother witnesses the explosion from her bedroom window, scientists scramble to make sense of it from within the power plant, politicians are awakened from their sleep miles away in Moscow - and continues into the next few months.
It might seem like a bit of a stretch on the surface, but Mazin’s best idea is to draw parallels between Soviet era politics and the rise of the far-right around the world, circa 2019. His story focusses on the perils of blind adherence, and how loyalty to a rotting political ideology can rob common people of their decency.
One of the most affecting scenes of the show comes early on, when Professor Valery Legasov (Jared Harris) - for a while the only person who truly understands the scale of what has happened - quietly asks leader of the Communist Party, Mikhail Gorbachev to allow him to hire men to physically enter the nuclear zone to conduct a manual clean-up. He is essentially seeking permission to kill these men. In a matter of days, their skin will begin to peel away, their insides will be eaten out, they will lose their senses. They will, tragically, be forced to die alone, untouchable to their families for fear of contaminating them.
Legasov is the closest thing Chernobyl has to a protagonist. But to the men and women whose deaths he sanctioned, how could he be anything but a villain? “What is the cost of lies?” he wonders in episode one, years after the fact. “It’s not that we’ll mistake them for the truth. The real danger is that if we hear enough lies, then we no longer recognise the truth at all.”
And lies were what the Soviet people were told - that the level of radiation wasn’t alarming, that it was under control, that the immediate effects could be contained; through propaganda, through fake news, and through decades of having lived under communist rule, where matters of the state were best left in the hands of the powerful. And they walked to their deaths, chanting, ‘I serve the Soviet Union’.
Instead of swiftly evacuating the town of Pripyat, it was decided to quarantine it. To immediately tackle the situation, young men were drafted to aid in the clean-up process - civilian liquidators, they were called, and some of them were barely adults.
Stellan Skarsgard plays the man - a lifelong bureaucrat - who did most of the decision-making, including - and this is the show’s most difficult-to-watch sequence - sending young men to kill the animals. Swedish filmmaker Johan Renck captures this horror with respect and restraint, conjuring dread (sometimes literally) out of thin air; borrowing the slow burn approach of Breaking Bad and the bold visual aesthetic of Paul Greengrass. Never before have images of open windows been as terrifying; or of mothers hugging their children, or of people soaking in the rain. Never has mass burial looked this pretty. There is also an immaculate attention to Soviet era detail - from Ladas to linoleum.
Renck films the disaster with an almost fantastical flair, and the heated political discussions like an old documentary. There is ugliness to be found in both.
The times may have changed. We may no longer be in Gorbachev’s USSR, but we’re just worshipping different masters now, the show seems to say. Some of them have orange skin, others wear orange clothes.