Pop Culturing: In HBO's 'Chernobyl,' Truth, Power and the Russian Way

by Jason St. Amand

National News Editor

Monday May 6, 2019

Stellan Skarsgard, left and Jared Harris, right in "Chernobyl."
Stellan Skarsgard, left and Jared Harris, right in "Chernobyl."  (Source:Liam Daniel/HBO)

In early 2018, CNN released a 30-second ad for its "Facts First" campaign. The short and simple clip shows an apple with a narrator saying, "This is an apple. Some people might try to tell you that it's a banana. They might scream, 'banana, banana, banana' over and over and over again. They might put 'banana' in all caps. You might even start to believe that this is a banana. But it's not. This is an apple." Obviously, the news network was taking aim at President Donald Trump and his ongoing retaliation against "fake news," which, according to him, includes CNN.

Since the 2016 presidential election, and especially in the years since Trump took office, a new world of post-truth politics began to shape, thanks to the Internet, social media and Russian interference. What we understand to be indisputable facts and undeniable truths are now up for debate, subjected to manipulation and can be misconstrued simply because people with popular Twitter accounts claim these truths are not real (take flat-earthers, for example) or because we see a convincing but false posting in our news feeds. Although it's been over 30 years since the catastrophic nuclear disaster at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, HBO's new miniseries "Chernobyl," which debuts Monday, is an incredibly gripping show that is rooted in today's distorted post-truth world.

Created for TV by Craig Mazin, who also writes all five episodes, and directed by Johan Reneck, "Chernobyl" is a fascinating dramatization of one of the world's worst man-made disasters in history. It plays out like a stranger-than-fiction sci-fi thriller, unfolding in the now-deserted town of Pripyat, in northern Soviet Ukraine. What's eerier than all the mind-blowing details about the disaster and all of the ramifications the explosion continues to plague the earth today is that the limited series finds relevance in our modern political climate.

Adam Nagaitis in "Chernobyl." Photo credit: Liam Daniel/HBO

"Chernobyl" follows scientist Valery Legasov (Jared Harris), who the Kremlin asks to join a panel of bureaucrats dealing with the explosion. The group is more interested in upholding the Soviet Union's perfect image and telling the public (and the world) that the explosion is minor than dealing with the crisis at hand. Legasov cannot bite his tongue, however, and is eventually tasked, along with skeptic Soviet Deputy Prime Minister Boris Shcherbina (Stellan Skarsgard), to go to the power plant and investigate the situation. Later on in the series, nuclear physicist Ulana Khomyuk (Emily Watson) gets involved, lending her knowledge to the urgent incident and underscoring how severe the explosion actually is.

From the get-go, "Chernobyl" operates with a hum of dread. The first episode "1:23:45" begins at the end of the story, a few years after Legasov handled the explosion when he takes his own life. Before doing so, he recorded his version of events to tape to ensure the real story of the Chernobyl disaster is told. The episode then flashes back to the day of the incident — a gut-wrenching and harrowing hour of television that's one-part action thriller and one-part unbelievable historical drama. The action doesn't stop there and "Chernobyl" never shies away from showing the deeply horrific events and the devastating damages radiation had on the people dealing with the meltdown. Elsewhere, the limited series shows how the explosion impacted the folks who lived in Pripyat and the surrounding areas. "Chernobyl" follows resident Lyudmilla Ignatenko (Jessie Buckley), who is pregnant with her first child, and her firefighter husband (Adam Nagatis), a first responder at Chernobyl. Through their experience, we see how the government dealt with those first subjected to the deadly radiation spewing from the power plant and how medical professionals were helpless with aiding those affected.

A scene from HBO's "Chernobyl." Photo credit: HBO

Most disturbing of all is how "Chernobyl" portrays Soviet Union officials dealing with the disaster at the time. Viktor Bryukhanov (Con O'Neill), the plant's manager, and Anatoly Dyatlov (Paul Ritter), the plant's deputy chief-engineer, were in charge at the time of the disaster and apparently did everything in their power to downplay the disaster. When told that the Chernobyl nuclear core exploded, the men fired back at their accusers by asking, "How does a nuclear core actually explode?" (The line of thinking at the time was that there is no convictable way it could explode.)

When Legasov tells them that the core exploded, pointing out the enormous hole in the power plant and that graphite, which is used to insulate the core, is littered all over the ground that surrounds the building, Bryukhanov and Dyatlov ask Legasov to explain how it happened. He can't and therefore, despite the evidence in front of their faces, the core didn't explode. It's this type of gaslighting that happens throughout "Chernobyl" that is incredibly unsettling and unnerving as officials do nothing as the situation gets worse. At the end of the miniseries, title cards offer details about the disaster, explaining that while the number of deaths related to Chernobyl is hard to determine, it is estimated that the effects of the explosion range from 4,000 to 93,000 deaths. However, the Soviet death toll remains unchanged since 1987, which claims just 31 people died.

Five hours feels like the right amount of time to dedicate to the Chernobyl disaster. The miniseries never feels bloated or slow — a common complaint aimed at a number of prestige TV shows. And in some ways, "Chernobyl" defies expectations of what a prestige show is; there are no A-list American actors involved in the project but it's an all-star cast of British performers ("Dunkirk" star Barry Keoghan shows up towards the back half of the show). Creator/writer Mazin has mostly penned comedies, including "The Hangover Part II" (and "Part III"), "Identity Thief" with Melissa McCarthy, as well as "The Huntsman: Winter's War." On "Chernobyl," however, Mazin sharpens his craft for a smart and well-written series with fleshed out characters that are brought to life by exceptional direction from Renck, whose credits include "Breaking Bad," "The Walking Dead" and music videos for Madonna, Robyn, Kylie Minogue, and more. The result is a surprising and captivating miniseries that's both intense and horrifying, making "Chernobyl" one of the best TV shows this year.

Pop Culturing

This story is part of our special report titled Pop Culturing. Want to read more? Here's the full list.

Comments on Facebook