In April 1986 a nuclear reactor exploded in the Soviet town of Chernobyl. In the wake of the devastation that occurred a group of scientists and one brave administrator worked to try to get to the bottom of the cause while also coming up with strategies for limiting the damage. But in a world where the truth will do anything but set you free, it’s like swimming upstream with no fins.
When Valery Legasov (Jarred Harris) is brought in to assess the “fire” at the Chernobyl power plant he is expected to ratify the official report and close down the issue. However he feels compelled to insist on further investigation which thrusts him into the path of Boris Shcherbina (Stellan Skarsgård), a party man who wants nothing to do with Legasov’s ideas. As Shcherbina realises that Legasov’s suspicions relating to the reactor are real, he throws himself wholeheartedly into looking for solutions to what could be world ending problems.
Meanwhile, Legasov’s colleague Ulana Khomyuk (Emily Watson) attempts to piece together the happenings of the night because everyone knows RMK reactors don’t explode.
Chernobyl is every bit as extraordinary and compelling as every review has told you it is.
Underlying every theme that the series approaches is the unique “personality” of the Soviet Union. Appearance is everything. The idea that the Soviet state is infallible is not subject to question and anyone who does question the agreed line is dealt with swiftly and without mercy. This makes for a nation where secrecy and manipulation of the facts is part of every societal interaction at every level. Underpinning this is a concept of a duty to the state which lives in the heart of every Soviet citizen. The combination of these factors leads to a perfect storm resulting in what was ultimately a completely preventable tragedy.
There is a seemingly impenetrable mystery that surrounds the explosion. It never should have happened. There were so many fail safes that should have prevented it so for Khomyuk even knowing where to start is a challenge. Seeing her piece together the clues is fascinating. She is met with resistance at every stage, especially by plant supervisor, Anatoly Dyatlov (Paul Ritter) who believes he will be executed regardless and would rather spare himself the indignity of her questions.
Second is the human cost of the explosion. At every turn the truth is obfuscated, ignored or misdirected. This means that exposure for many of the first responders and their families is horrifying. It also leads to a situation where some of the recovery mission must be undertaken by men who know what they are doing is likely to kill them or sigificantly reduce their lifespan.
All of this comes to a head in one of the best courtroom scenes I have ever witnessed… and we all know I watch a lot of TV and movies. Who would have thought the inner workings of a nuclear reactor could be that exciting.
Jarred Harris gives a career defining performance as Legasov. He is torn between wanting to do the right thing and wondering if there is any point. The Chernobyl incident makes him question everything he believes about life and himself and he is expressive in a perfectly restrained manner. Emily Watson is equally impressive as the series’ heart. Khomyuk’s bravery in the face of an enemy that could literally make her and everyone she has ever known vanish is inspiring. Skarsgård’s character goes through a transformation from an insignificant administrator, bored with his lot to someone who realises he can use his influence to truly make a difference. He gets the balance between Shcherbina’s past of always toeing the line to finding his own voice just right. Finally, I must mention Paul Ritter who really embodies the loathsome Dyatlov.
I was glued to the screen from beginning to end. The pace is exceptional, the storytelling inspired and the impact lingers long after it is finished. This is a story that had to be told and a strong reminder of what happens when you take away people’s voices and punish independent thought.