HBO’s Chernobyl: The Perfect Disaster

HBO’s miniseries, “Chernobyl,” which came to an end this past Monday, couldn’t have debuted at a better marketing time. If you were watching “Game of Thrones” (which everyone except maybe Kit Harrington was), you and the rest of the world were subjected to teasers and trailers for a haunting and true-to-facts miniseries diving deep into the horrific events of 1986 at Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant or as one character in the opening episode will remind you, if you haven’t seen it, “The Vladimir I. Lenin Nuclear Power Plant.”

‘Chernobyl,” though being released by HBO in America, is a co-production with British channel Sky U.K. which becomes quite clear minutes into the first episode. The cast is rounded out by notable British actors. Jared Harris leads the team in an excellent turn in a lead role as the doomed from the start, an inorganic chemist, Valery Legaslov. The always excellent Stellan Skarsgård plays somewhat of a companion role to Harris in the role of Boris Scherbina, the deputy chairman of The Council of Ministers. And another U.K. face, Emily Watson, takes on a fictional role as a scientist with useful knowledge, Ulana Khomyuk meant to, as Watson states, “represent the many scientists who worked fearlessly and put themselves in a lot of danger to help solve the situation.”

‘Chernobyl” comes from creator and writer, Craig Mazin. You might not know that name, but upon seeing the trailers and researching the writer, I had doubts. Mazin’s past credits include two of the “Scary Movie” series, “The Hangover Part II,” and the sequel to 2012’s “Snow White and the Huntsman.” Who wouldn’t want to see a serious take on a nuclear disaster from the writer of “Scary Movie 3”? What could go wrong with that?

I was dead wrong. Mazin appears to have found the perfect genre for himself, as Mazin’s script shines with captivating scenes of suspense (props to director Johan Renck),  down-to-earth dialogue, and the ability to turn an unbelievable disaster into a human-driven story filled with raw emotions and political talk (which usually bores me to death), into enthralling and tense moments.

Don’t expect ridiculous Russian caricatures from Harris, Watson, or Skarsgård. There are no put-upon accents that would be impossible to un-hear in “Chernobyl.” Instead, Chernobyl chooses to go away from making these actors speak poorly in Russian or attempting to convince us the very Swedish Stellan Skarsgård is not Swedish, but to tell a story that can educate as well as make our minds become engulfed by a jaw-dropping event in what was once Soviet history. Chernobyl couldn’t have made a better decision by doing this. Rather than feeling as if you’re watching actors perform an oral presentation of USSR history, each scene of Chernobyl feels like real time, as set back after set back occurs, leaving you wondering “how much more disastrous can this get?”

I’d be doing “Chernobyl” a dishonor if I didn’t mention the stunning cinematography by Jakob Ihre, who’s previously worked on projects such as 2015’s David Foster Wallace biopic, “The End of the Tour,” and 2012’s Greta Gerwig vehicle, “Lola Versus.” Every shot in “Chernobyl” has perfectly encapsulated a dour sense of dread in gray tones that hover over actors Jared Harris, Emily Watson, and Stellan Skarsgård with no remorse or care. 

The entire team behind “Chernobyl” (Mazin, Renck, and Ihre as well as composer Hildur Gudnadottir), have crafted a genius piece on a man-made disaster and the repercussions that come from human failure. Whether it’s the story of the first fireman called in to put out what they had been told was only a minor call, or the scientists’ struggle with guilt over countless lives thrown away for success in exterminating the fire–it’s been a long time since a show so nerve-wracking and devastating as “Chernobyl” has crossed our television screens and I highly believe it will be a long time until one does once more. 

At it’s worst, “Chernobyl” is a compelling miniseries layered in heartbreaking truths of fatality and insider deception. At it’s strongest, things are going wrong–very wrong. And that’s not such a bad thing.

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