HBO miniseries Chernobyl is a harrowing and meticulous dramatisation of the events leading up to and the immediate aftermath of the biggest nuclear disaster in history. Most of the plot across five taut episodes is about the superhuman efforts at containment by brave people without which millions would have perished. It could easily have been a bigger catastrophe than Hiroshima and Nagasaki put together.
Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant was an RBMK type reactor near Pripyat in Soviet Ukraine (Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic) whose very core exploded (something which was not thought possible) because of several unforeseen reasons and resulted in dispersal of large amounts of radioactive material in the area. At one point it threatened the lives of millions through airborne radiation and potential contamination of the ground water. The aftereffects of the disaster were felt as far as Norway.
Chernobyl is high-quality television, but it is by no means entertaining. Unless one is sadistic, one cannot derive fun from this show. It starts gloomy and gets gloomier as it continues. Jared Harris, probably one of the most underrated actors working today, plays a nuclear physicist Valery Legasov. He is the protagonist of the series. But he uses his clout with the Council of Ministers’ deputy chairman Boris Shcherbina (Stellan Skarsgård) to send a lot of people to their certain death in the containment efforts. There is a sequence when a German-made robot is remotely manoeuvred to clear the plant’s roof and it instantly “dies” before it even starts the job. It is then Legasov suggests sending men to do a task that was too dangerous for a machine. He puts forward a bleak, subhuman term for those assigned to do the job — biorobots.
It is not as though he did not realise the gravity of what he was saying. He was not being malevolent towards them. He was just urging Shcherbina to order the men to basically go in close proximity of dangerously high amount of radiation so that the poison of Chernobyl would not spread and kill many more.
Further ahead, there arises a need of miners to excavate a tunnel. There is a blasé leader of miners who immediately grasps what this minor government official standing before him wants them to do but does not have the courage to admit upfront — to die so others can live. It is difficult to hide anything from men who have toiled hard their whole lives in most adverse conditions on earth. As Shcherbina warns Legasov, “These men work in the dark. They see everything.”
The Soviet Union in 1986, the year Chernobyl disaster occurred, was a dying empire. The never-ending race to compete with much more economically developed US and ill-advised Afghan invasion had weakened it to its core. It was only a matter of time before it ceased to exist. The Chernobyl incident was the first of its kind on the planet and its containment required an unprecedented amount of resources that beggared an already bankrupt nation.
(The containment here is of two kinds. The first was the containment of information. The Soviet authorities did not want the world to know the details of the disaster for, they believed, it would signify incompetence on their part. The official position of the state, Boris tells Legasov at one point, is that global nuclear catastrophe is not possible in the Soviet Union. The myth had to be perpetuated so the empire could go on. The second containment, of course, was the control of disaster’s spread — the pivot on which the series revolves.)
Chernobyl was thus at least one of the primary causes of the end of Cold War and radical restructuring of the world order in which the United States emerged as the only superpower. Mikhail Gorbachev, the last leader of the Soviet Union, a one-party, communist state that Vladimir Lenin had built, agrees. He once said that the Chernobyl disaster “even more than my launch of perestroika, was perhaps the real cause of the collapse of the Soviet Union five years later.”
Chernobyl has a menacingly gripping narration and writing. It never lets the attention of the viewer waver, and it does that not by breathless pace but subtly outlining the enormity of what we are witnessing. The acting by Jared Harris, Stellan Skarsgård and Emily Watson is reliably top-notch. This trio is talented enough to elevate any material, let alone Chernobyl.
In a way, Chernobyl is a real-life horror story — more frightening than any scary movie or show you will see. For while the demons in Chernobyl may be more routine — human incompetence, institutional rot, an oppressive, insecure government and so on, they are actually real unlike ghosts, vampires and such. And they make for far more ruthless and efficient killers.
Let me end this review with my favourite quote from the series, a haunting dialogue: “Every lie we tell incurs a debt to the truth. Sooner or later that debt is paid.”
Chernobyl streams on Hotstar.
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