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Chernobyl, the excellent miniseries from HBO that recently completed its five-episode run, is many things. A story about a tragedy from the recent past, a look into the bureaucracy that plagued the Soviet Union in its waning years, a deep dive into the terrifying effects of nuclear power (and what it can do to help and destroy us). But, ultimately, it’s a study into just how a lie agreed upon by those with the most power can lead to the suffering of those who they are meant to protect – and the depths to which those with power will sink to protect that lie. Valery Legasov (played brilliantly by Jared Harris, the current go-to actor if you’re looking for a British man who is crushed under the weight of responsibility) is a hero within this story not simply because he is willing and able to take the steps necessary to prevent additional meltdown from the plant, but because he speaks truth to power (even if that truth is prevented from getting out for years).
It would be easy to see Chernobyl as an indictment of Soviet policies, or read the series as an attack on the Soviet Union (it is those things as well, as it cannot help but take to task the secrecy and hubris of the Soviet structure – and I say this as someone who extensively studied the Soviet Union during my university days). But, at its heart, this miniseries aims its sights higher: this is a look at what happens when the government isn’t willing to own up to its own shortcomings. Legasov’s speech in court lays this bare. This was a preventable tragedy, but a decision was made to cut corners, and that led to the death of thousands. The cover-up that followed was quintessentially Soviet, but it’s not hard to see any other major world power attempting to do the same to save face.
The series isn’t meant to terrify us about nuclear power (although, judging from the internet, it might have done that), it’s to show us what can happen when untrustworthy leaders take risks with power they don’t seem to fully understand. We live in a post-nuclear world, where countries have more than enough firepower to destroy each other time and time again. Many people don’t remember the fear of the Cold War and take this excess of nuclear weapons as just part of life. Watching this miniseries, one gets an excellent understanding of just how horrific nuclear power can be when it gets out of control. Imagine what would happen with a bomb?
Outside of its moral and historical lessons, Chernobyl’s brilliance lies in its execution. This is a gorgeously shot and produced series, sparing no expense in recreating the fallout from the disaster. It is unflinching in exploring the aftereffects of exposure (the sequences within the hospitals were chilling and difficult to watch). And the acting. What spectacular acting. Harris, as I mentioned, anchors an excellent cast of British and Scandinavian actors (while one of my personal pet peeves is how every European country seems to be full of British accents in musicals, film, and television, making this an across the board choice – much like the choice to use actor’s native accents in the excellent The Death of Stalin – makes it feel less jarring to hear Ukrainian characters with English accents). Emily Watson, portraying a character created as an amalgamation of several nuclear scientists, carries the humanitarian side of the story. Watching Watson’s increasingly worried face as she sees the corners being cut in the medical side of things (and as she hears just how poorly outfitted the plant was for the required test that sparked the disaster), gives the audience a look into just how shocking the systemic failure truly was.
But the key to all the great work is that nothing overshadows anything else. The performances all work together in concert (helped, surely, by the level of talented character actors who are allowed moments to shine – something that rarely occurs in Hollywood productions). The sets and effects (CGI and make-up) create the ambiance and a framework that help us to understand what has happened without veering into the melodramatic. And, perhaps most impressively, the script and direction tell the story in a manner laypeople can understand. I’m not well-versed in the science behind the meltdown (or the science behind how the injuries would manifest, although I do know that all the blood likely wouldn’t have been true to life), but I was able to grasp the scale of the disaster and the massive scale of the recovery. By the time the story reached the kangaroo court trial, I was just as incensed as Legasov, Khomyuk, and Shcherbina that the truth was going to go unstated, and that those who risked their lives to stop the fallout from spreading would die serving a lie created by those above them.
Chernobyl was a marvelously entertaining miniseries, but it was also a marvelously complex look at a historical event through our modern lens. We now know what really happened to cause the disaster (although Russia is apparently planning on making their own patriotic miniseries that will tell us the real truth . . . sure, it will), and we can also recognize the cautionary tale at the heart of it all. When those in power are willing to sacrifice the safety and lives of those under their control for their own personal interests, bad things can happen.