Chernobyl review: Gripping and weighty drama is a triumph of a disaster

Watching the Sky Atlantic series, you'll find it hard not to draw parallels with current events

Ed Cumming
Wednesday 08 May 2019 12:30
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Chernobyl (2019) Official Trailer HBO

The trailer for this new five-part dramatisation of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster did not inspire a great deal of confidence. Children frolicked in thick drifts of ash while bassy Hans Zimmer-ish rumbles sounded like sirens. Soviet firemen stared up at the nuclear blaze. Emily Watson looked worried in corridors. Had HBO and Sky contrived to sex up the meltdown? There are subjects you can turn into glamorous event television, but the worst nuclear disaster in history is not necessarily one of them.

I shouldn’t have worried. This superb opener, which dramatises the events of 26 April 1986 and their immediate aftermath, manages to be both weighty and gripping. Given the different moving parts, with action scenes at the reactor alternating with Soviet committee discussions about how much of the truth to reveal, it’s impressive that this feels so coherent, the disparate elements held in place by a spare and oddly beautiful aesthetic.

The director, Johan Renck, started in music videos, and shows his background in quick cuts and unexpected tracking shots. Amid the horror are moments of grace: helicopters fly into the smoke to dump sand and boron into the blaze, their pilots knowing their mission would most likely be fatal; an engineer peering straight into the neutron-Medusa core of the reactor, fatally irradiating himself; citizens of Pripyat, the nearby town, being loaded onto buses and driven off without being told why. At times it is reminiscent of The Little Drummer Girl, the BBC’s Le Carré adaptation from last year, which also framed unpromising architecture and outfits with poise, although where that thriller had gloss and bright colours, this has gravitas shot in ochre and grey.

It is anchored by an excellent ensemble cast, and three performances in particular. Jared Harris is Valery Legasov, a physicist who leads the commission investigating the disaster. The programme opens two years after the accident, with Legasov chain-smoking in a horrible flat. With his front door observer by security services, he records tapes in which he reveals his fears over the cover-up. Then he kills himself and the action reverts to the incident, where technicians encounter forces they have never seen before with bravery and unfolding horror, as information slowly filters up through layers of government.

Stellan Skarsgård plays Legasov’s boss, Boris Shcherbina, a politician who initially refuses to believe Legasov but is slowly brought round, while Watson is the Belorussian physicist who is the first to work out what is going on. She has the vaguest lilt, but otherwise the cast play Craig Mazin’s script in English accents. It might not have worked but instead it lends everything added verisimilitude. It seems plausible for engineers and officials to insist the reactor core cannot have been exposed even as men come back irradiated and dying, the flesh stripped from their faces. Occasionally, some of the senior Soviet functionaries reminded me of the officials in The Death of Stalin, saying one thing is true when the other is happening right in front of them.

It’s not difficult to draw parallels with current events. In climate change, we face an often-invisible threat on too grand a scale for governments to handle it. In the scientists’ frayed patience with the uninformed apparatchiks who rule them, there are echoes of Michael Gove’s famous assessment of “experts”. The idea that there might even be rival versions of truth resonates with an era of fake news.

The threat of nuclear war may have abated but as metaphors, radiation and fallout are as powerful as they were 30 years ago. Timely, bleak, intelligent and compelling, Chernobyl is a triumph of a disaster.

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