The 25th of April is a sacred day in Australia. It is in remembrance of Australian and New Zealand soldiers lost in war, a reminder to help and honour all veterans, those of them still with us, and their families and to remember always that there is no glory in war – Only loss. The day is borne out of the first day of the Gallipoli landings in 1915, appropriately the beginning of a failed military campaign, just one part of the Great War that forever marked a generation and left repercussions that have been felt down throughout the 20th century. It is a day of significance and remembrance to be spent solemnly.
The next day is the 26th of April and it holds significance too. On that day another generation would be called to sacrifice themselves in a huge undertaking that if it did not kill them outright would forever leave its mark. Thousands who through their efforts saved thousands more – maybe millions. In the Ukraine, in Russia, in greater Europe, throughout the rest of the world how much do we stop and think of the Heroes of Chernobyl?
“What really grabbed me and held me were the incredible stories of the human beings who lived through it, and who suffered and sacrificed to save the people that they loved, to save their countrymen and to save a continent, and continued to do so, against odds that were startling and kept getting worse. I was so moved by it. It was like I had discovered a war that people just hadn’t really depicted, and I became obsessed.” -Craig Mazin
The five part mini-series from HBO and Sky UK, written by Craig Mazin a graduate of Princeton and the writer of the Hangover sequels may not be a perfectly written series. Despite strong critical notices and ratings, there have been dissenters no doubt put off by the slow pacing and the stories of some characters. It can be a bit of a slog at times, composite characters standing in for the nuanced reality of multiple individuals, and thematic points hammered home in the dialogue.
Yet the story of Chernobyl is remarkable and Mazin has articulated a fascination he had about two things. Firstly the power dynamics of a communist society that allows for such a disaster to take place and is not well placed to react quickly to it. Secondly, the communal and bitterly stoic nature of the people of the Soviet Union. As Mazin has pointed out in interviews, maybe only the Soviet people could have dealt with such a disaster this way. The two world wars, Stalin and Chernobyl. It was a hard century for the Soviet Union and the Ukraine took more than its fair share. Mazin knows this and knows it well.
“The lesson of Chernobyl isn’t that modern nuclear power is dangerous. The lesson is that lying, arrogance, and suppression of criticism are dangerous.” –Craig Mazin
The series starts off in the morning of the 26th of April, 1986 when all hell broke loose except people didn’t quite react like it had. The first episode is about that first morning, reactor workers scrambling around their damaged facility not wanting to believe what is really happening, firemen arriving on site with no protective gear and locals gathered on a bridge looking at the impressive blue light in the sky.
Subsequent episodes spread out the timeframe and show the longer ongoing implications and developments. I was reminded of Tom Clancy and his everyman hero Jack Ryan in the situation faced by Valery Legasov as played by Jared Harris. A mid-level civil servant with some intelligence forced to communicate what is really going on during a crisis to foolhardy men of power. The character of Emily Watson’s Ulana Khomyuk gets similar scenes but isn’t flown in to Chernobyl via helicopter which is more akin to a Jack Ryan tale. There are a lot of stories and characters in Chernobyl; some may resonate more than others. Liquidators cleaning up the countryside afterwards, workers volunteering or “volunteering” for dangerous tasks, soldiers drinking their vodka straight, scientists and politicians smoking cigarettes in dimly lit rooms debating what is the next solution before it’s too late, wives relying on their wits and courage to be reunited with their radiation stricken husbands only to…
Some subplots may resonate more than others but the tragedy of Chernobyl reveals the character of a people that are long overdue for some recognition in facing the greatest man-made catastrophe in human history. The relationship at the heart of the story is the one between the pragmatic party man Boris Shcherbina in charge of the whole operation and played by Stellan Skarsgard and Harris’s scientist Legasov who is just trying to do the right thing. Their growing respect and understanding of the other and what they do is the best relationship depicted in the series. Emily Watson gives another great performance and as does the rest of the cast, in episode four she delivers a line about Chernobyl that kind of breaks your heart.
The filmmakers seem invested in practicality as much as possible, including shooting in Lithuania at the Ignalina Nuclear Power Plant which resembled very much the appearance of Chernobyl itself. As a child of the 1980s I was enthralled by how much the lighting and colour grading of the series resembles film form that period.
Barring two significant sequences too, it feels very much like the shot composition and editing is very similar to that time period as well so that any variation from it has an impact and is in service to the story being told. One is a drone aerial shot that would have been done via helicopter or crane back in the day to reveal the evacuation of Pripyat. By making that choice it reminds that time has passed on and allows to move out from close ups in a way not possible when being done any other way. The second involves a 90 second sequence shot in real time that will not be spoiled here. All episodes are directed by Johan Renck who made his bones on several prestige television series and music videos; Chernobyl suggests more big things to come.
The series will not be for everyone, not least of which are due to some harrowing hospital scenes but if Chernobyl touches you it definitely leaves its mark.
P.S. I would recommend the podcast by Craig Mazin and Peter Sagal as well. The first episode can be found here.