It almost goes without saying that this short series is superb. To give it more credit though, it is relentlessly superb; every single second of the production is pitch-perfect from the acting to the Soviet era props. Chernobyl shows just what storytelling, acting and direction can achieve when backed up by such impressive behind the camera resources, to the point watching becomes more than a passive experience. This is something, as an audience, that we live through.
The story is disarmingly straight-forward. We start with the suicide of scientist Valery Legasov (an exceptional career best Jared Harris) after recounting the truth of what happened during the disaster rather than the official Soviet propaganda, into a series of cassette tapes and entrusting those recordings to history. It is a clear indication of the tone the production will take and who our central figure will be – the narrative voice without there being a narrator. And then we go back and see the events in Pripyat as the Chernobyl reactor explodes, and what plays out.
The events are extraordinary and even after over thirty years still have the mark of a curiously dreamlike surreality. A nightmare that just doesn’t stop.
There are moments of high drama of course, characters disagreeing, dissembling and being menaced by quiet underplaying. But the major thing is a creeping dread, something that is utterly riveting. The grim almost monochrome reality of life in the USSR is populated by real people, beautifully rendered characters – some of whom only appear on screen for the briefest of moments. But the real scale of the excellence of the production is in the unrelenting horror that this actually happened. It becomes a horror documentary, a dramatisation that leaves you goggle eyed and with your hand over mouth. The subtly sweet use of dramatic irony available to writer Craig Mazin, with his audience watching in the 21st century, is not overdone, indeed it makes the revelations that populate the episodes surprising.
What this show highlights more than anything is the human cost of the reactor at Chernobyl exploding. The lies and lives thrown away by the authorities. The heroism of those fighting fires, those volunteering to be human robots clearing graphite debris, those mining underneath the core – and the painful deaths of those too close when the explosion happened, and the slow deaths of those who had to be close to stop billions of people dying from fallout. The dread of each episode is the lack of choice some had, while others fully embraced the danger.
Paul Ritter gives a magnetically nasty performance as Anatoly Dyatlov, the assistant chief engineer of the plant and the man in charge of the botched safety test which led to the explosion. The weasiliness of Nikolai Fomin the chief engineer, and Viktor Bryukhanov the plant manager, played by Adrian Rawlins as and Con O’Neill respectively, is a surperb presentation of corporate and political cowardice. Alan Williams as Charkov, the KGB’s first deputy chairman, is quietly menacing. And Emily Watson as the fictional composite Ulana Khomyuk has a weariness which undoubtedly must have been felt by the several physicists and scientists on whom she was based – those who risked everything to use their intelligence to find out what was going on. Stellan Skarsgård as politician in charge of the clean-up Boris Shcherbina has the clearest “character arc” over the five episodes and the nobility he develops is shattering.
The enormity of the story and what it could have meant for planet earth is told with a deceptive simplicity, through the story of the people it effected. The research and use of appropriate looking Soviet era buildings and locations give proceedings a verisimilitude almost unheard of in a modern recent-history “costume drama”. There is an authenticity, even with the composite character of Ulana Khomyuk, which is breathtaking. The acting and storytelling are great. But it is the coupling of every creative element, and the getting of every single one of them right which makes Chernobyl so immersively and dramatically brilliant. It is engrossing, riveting and makes the audience wish that all television drama could be so good.
Chernobyl is out on Blu-ray today and is very highly recommended.