Review: HBO’s haunting ‘Chernobyl’ focuses on the truth tellers who paid dearly

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Television Critic

The worst nuclear disaster in history is the setting for HBO’s powerful and haunting five-part drama, “Chernobyl,” where state secrets are pitted against the welfare of the people after a reactor ruptures early one spring morning in 1986.

As if the Soviet Union wasn’t grim enough without a blanket of radioactive haze blocking out the industrial pollution that blocks out the clouds that block out the sun.

The miniseries, which premieres Monday, chronicles the events surrounding the April 26 explosion of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in the Northern Ukraine region of Pripyat and does so in terrifying detail.


In the first few hours after the blast, unprotected firemen hose down the reactors as if this cataclysmic blast was a run-of-the-mill forest fire. Plant workers wade through leaked water from the core as they investigate “the breach.” Neighboring communities dance in the falling ash.

And there’s still 4½ more episodes to go.

“Chernobyl,” however, is not a horror show. It’s a suspenseful, tragic and illuminating drama about government corruption, systemic incompetence and the unyielding will of the people to drag their country back from the brink of ruin as they have done time and time again after coups, wars, fallen regimes, invasions, famine and more.

Written by Craig Mazin and directed by Johan Renck, the series follows scientist Valery Legaslov (played by Jared Harris, master of deeply conflicted yet wonderfully understated characters), a real-life figure who was appointed to a committee overseeing the cleanup of Chernobyl.

He’s a brilliant academic who lives and breathes nuclear fission but knows little about the clandestine nature and bureaucracy of the Communist Party leadership he has to navigate. He wants to warn everyone to evacuate. They want to keep the catastrophe hidden, especially from the rest of the world.

Legaslov is teamed with a lifelong party man, Deputy Prime Minister Boris Shcherbina (Stellan Skarsgard), who was named head of the special government commission on Chernobyl.


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He’s a gruff and imposing enforcer who’s an expert at circumnavigating the Kremlin and KBG but understands so little about the situation he’s been handed that he suggests flying their reconnaissance helicopter over the deadly fume emanating from the plant before Legaslov warns him they’d be cooked within seconds.

Together with nuclear physicist Ulana Khomyuk (Emily Watson), a fictional composite character, they must solve the puzzle of why the reactor exploded in order to contain the lethal mess. It’s a painstaking process, and every solution seems to contribute to a new crisis.

Time is of the essence, of course, and it’s measured here in the minutes, hours, days, weeks and months since the blast. Note to viewer: Wear your mouth guard if you’re prone to teeth grinding under stress.

Legaslov and his team push for answers, and the government deploys legions of workers, all of whom operate within the aging infrastructure of a republic whose power has clearly waned.


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“Chernobyl” recreates the USSR in impressive detail, from ghostly, deserted apartment blocks in the contamination zone where abandoned pets roam free, to the oppressive underground war rooms of the Belarusian Communist Party headquarters in Minsk, to the outdated control board at the plant that looks as if it was state-of-the-art … in 1951.

As bleak as it all sounds, “Chernobyl” is a riveting drama that’s full of payoffs. It’s a thoroughly researched account of an event that’s still misunderstood, and it captures the sacrifices made by the Russian people — knowingly and inadvertently — in their efforts to clean up another state-sponsored mess.

Coal miners dig underground tunnels to keep the nuclear waste from contaminating the groundwater. Nurses tend to dangerously contaminated patients. Volunteers run on top of the reactor’s roof, in timed intervals, to remove radioactive chunks of graphite by hand.

And they paid, dearly.

Legaslov, who spoke out about the disaster on a world stage, was silenced by the government, stripped of his title, ordered to cut all ties with his colleagues. He took his own life before succumbing to cancer (the series kicks off with his suicide).


The World Health Organization estimates 9,000 people died due to radiation exposure from Chernobyl. Other estimates put the figure as high as 60,000. It’s reported that the area won’t be safe for human habitation for 20,000 years.

Russia still has the official death toll at 31.

“Chernobyl” captures a moment where the USSR’s best and worst aspects played pivotal roles. It exposes a government paralyzed by its own secrecy while shining a light on the selfless citizens who gave their lives to protect their countrymen — and perhaps the world.


Where: HBO

When: 9 p.m. Monday

Rated: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under 17)