Chernobyl is a brand new miniseries which just wrapped its 5-episode run on the HBO network, host to such shows as The Sopranos, Game of Thrones, and The Wire. It was created and written by Craig Mazin, directed by Johan Renck, and stars Jared Harris, Stellan Skarsgård, Jessie Buckley, Emily Watson, Paul Ritter, Adam Nagaitis, Sam Troughton, Robert Emms, and Ralph Ineson. On April 26, 1986, at 1:23:45 a.m., a nuclear core in reactor 4 at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in Prypyat exploded, sending loads of deadly debris and fatality-level radiation into the air around it. With the wind picking up the smoke from the fire, and sending that radiation into nearby towns and cities, the proper authorities scrambled to figure out (or cover up) what led to the now infamous disaster. This story takes an up-close and haunting look at how the events of that Chernobyl disaster came to be, as well as what occurred in the aftermath – who tried to uncover the truth and who tried to bury it – and dares to pose the only relevant question: what is the cost of lies?
Typically, I don’t review all that much television. Most of that is simply due to the amount of time that must be invested in most network shows in order to finish whole series or a failure to catch up to the current season or episode of those still on the air. In the absence of having been there from the beginning, it takes a long time to catch up to or finish a series so that any critique of said series is or remains relevant to the review cycle. As well, most television critique is done episode by episode, and while I have played at doing this before, it is simply too much work for one person to do for an entire show, especially if that show has not finished, given that I am also reviewing movies and writing pieces on movie news; this is why, when I review television series, it is often presented in a per-season review format, such as my review for Game of Thrones’ Final Season. I do, however, enjoy reviewing miniseries, because after one go-round, the show is done, and I can review the story as a whole without having to worry if any pieces will remain relevant to, or become attached to, that whole. It’s all right there for the analyzing.
HBO has impressed with their miniseries’ before, most notably in the two WWII miniseries they had previously created, Band of Brothers and The Pacific (only the latter of which I have seen). Chernobyl, however, seems a different beast than those or even any other miniseries the network has put out entirely. This show isn’t just about the disaster of the accident, but the horror of what went into the eventual cover-up, and how difficult it was to get the truth in light of that. In short, it’s a horror-drama that almost perfectly straddles the three-stranded line between entertainment, information, and pure terror. The way Mazin has constructed a timeline down to each significant moment in the disaster allows the audience to soak in the in-between moments psychologically. We know that every second the damage isn’t fixed, more people will die, and yet we are powerless to do anything as we watch, practically screaming at the characters for all their corruption or begging them to hurry up and fix what went wrong. The closer they get to the truth, the more we fear for them and their safety, and the farther they get, the more we beg them to reverse course. The cost of the lies covering up both the disaster and what occurred before it (no spoilers if you don’t already know) is the horror that people experienced in light of the accident, and we see first-hand just how high the price of hiding the truth really is.
Much of this is due to the sheer skill of writer and creator Craig Mazin, whose episodic telling of the Chernobyl disaster is every bit as terrifying as it is mesmerizing. Mazin’s writing is truly sharp, insightful, and biting here, to say nothing of the stellar directing by Johan Renck, with the two having crafted one of the absolute best (if not the absolute best) disaster pilots in television history. Chernobyl was an event, yes, but Mazin never treats the explosion itself as the only disaster that occurred that night, with the next three episodes focused on the fallout of the explosion and the finale a nail-biting court case with an incredible lead-up to the climactic moment that started the entire show. It’s a masterclass in tying together every thread and paying off every little bit of story that all stems from a single point, and let it be lost on no one that much of this is also due to Johan Renck’s direction, which is at its most impressive in the pilot and the third episode.
The performances are all uniformly great, but the standouts are easily Jared Harris, Stellan Skarsgård, and Emily Watson. These three together command the screen so well, I was genuinely convinced that not only did they actually uncover the truth about the Chernobyl disaster, they had actually lived through it themselves. Of course, they are portraying real people, so that is, in essence, their job, but I remain thoroughly blown away by just how well those portrayals were brought to life. Jared Harris in particular should be up for a Best Actor Emmy at the next awards ceremony for his performance in the final three episodes. You see him struggling to contain this disaster that’s been pushed to its absolute limit and even though you know how thing turn out, watching Harris in that struggle is an incredible view of how subtlely he gets under your skin. We tend to take Stellan Skarsgård for granted much of the time because of how good he is in everything, but with Chernobyl, he reminds us why he’s one of the most respected actors in the business, and it’s a wonder to behold. He steals almost every scene he’s in, and the relationship he has with Jared Harris’ character was one of my favorite aspects of the whole thing.
The most surprising performance, though, comes courtesy of Emily Watson as Ulana Khomyuk, who aptly handles herself and begins to become a bit of a scene-stealer even next to Harris and Skarsgård. She commands every room she’s in, and you can tell that Watson is fully committed to the character; there was not a single moment where I doubted anyone in the show was the person they were portraying, but her performance was on another level. Even more impressive from both a writing and performance perspective is that Watson’s character is the only fictionalized character written into the show, as a composite of many other people who were alive at the time and helped uncover the truth about the accident; given that she’s not only not playing a real person, but playing several different people at once, with every emotion or nuance wrapped up in them, it’s a mightily impressive turn and she sells every single second of it.
Chernobyl is, without a doubt, one of the best miniseries not only on the HBO network, but ever committed to television. Although I am 100% sure it didn’t get absolutely everything right (most shows don’t, given the dramatic necessities involved in screenwriting), I am fully confident that this is the best possible version of the narrative that could be told, and given the incredible quality of the writing, directing, pacing, editing, effects (some of the visual and makeup effects are truly magnificent), performances, and everything else, I am more than okay with a little artistic liberty. I sure hope those of you who were only in it for Game of Thrones didn’t cancel your HBO subscriptions yet, because if they keep making shows like this one, with this consistency of quality, information, entertainment, and intrigue, you’re going to want to keep those subscriptions running for a long, long time.
I’m giving HBO’s “Chernobyl” a 9.7/10
- The Friendly Film Fan
Film critic in my free time. Film enthusiast in my down time. Writer for Bitesize Breakdown.