Over the past few days, I have watched all five episodes of the HBO/Sky Atlantic mini-series, ‘Chernobyl’. When this appeared on my NOW TV streaming box, I recalled reading many good reviews, so really wanted to see it. Investing more than five hours in one series is potentially risky, but I am pleased to say it paid off.
For anyone who didn’t know, the Ukrainian site of the nuclear reactor at Chernobyl suffered a catastrophic accident, on the 26th of April, 1986. There was an explosion that exposed the reactor core, resulting in a leak of radiation that spread far and wide across the Soviet Union, and up into northern Europe too. This serious drama examines what happened, what caused it, and how the authorities reacted to it. Also how so many brave people sacrificed their lives in the hope of containing it.
As dramas go, this is excellent. Helped by a real period feel, and locations that also seem to be very authentic, it never fails to convince, at any level. The mostly British cast brings a touch of class to the acting, backed up by the ever-reliable Stellan Skarsgard. Jared Harris takes the lead, with the wonderful British actresses Emily Watson and Jessie Buckley in significant roles. For the script, we have some use of actual official documents to go on, then a lot of supposition from the writers.
But this is not really about who did what, and why. It takes us into a nightmare world, that of the ultimate doomsday scenario. Incredibly brave fire-fighters and helicopter pilots who receive so high a dose of radiation, their lives are measured in moments, or days. The control room workers present at the time of the explosion, who may or may not have been negligent. It matters little, as they barely survive past the time when they are able to speculate on the poor engineering that caused the accident.
Being ‘our version’ of Gorbachev’s Soviet Union, much is made of KGB interference, and how suspicions and bureaucracy interfere in the attempts to discover the truth.
But you can forget all that. Just sit back, and watch some wonderful performances, disturbing set-piece events, special effects that feel real, and a tribute to the brave people and their families who tried to help. Be warned, excellent make-up reproduces the effects of burns and radiation poisoning in all too gruesome detail. Thousands of people are conscripted into the area to clear up after evacuation, and many are employed to just wander around killing domestic pets that present a radiation risk. This is a far from easy watch, but in a world where we are still heavily dependent on nuclear power, it is perhaps something that everyone should see.
One scene is stuck in my mind. When the firemen and helicopter pilots who were first on scene are all dead, the authorities seal their bodies inside welded lead coffins. They are then buried in a mass grave, as their families watch tearfully from the edge. Some hold photos of their loved ones, but one young woman has only her husband’s shoe in her hand. A cement mixer truck arrives, and begins to entomb the lead coffins in a sea of concrete as the relatives look on.
Powerful indeed, and deeply affecting.