Chernobyl

3 out of 5

Directed by: Johan Renck

This is a must watch.  This is one of the most terrifying series I’ve seen in recent past, backed up by amazing performances from leads Jared Harris, Stellan Skarsgård, and Emily Watson, incredibly brave structural decisions on behalf of the writer (Craig Mazin) and director (Johan Renck), and a haunting, subtle score from Hildur Guðnadóttir to tie it all together.

It’s a must watch.

And yet…

Chernobyl is about what it says: five hour-long episodes (filled to the 60 minute brim and slightly beyond) that cover events – in patient, description-laden detail – just prior to the ’86 nuclear disaster in Russia, and moreso to the extended recovery efforts undertaken thereafter, plagued by politics which demanded maintaining a dismissive attitude; that “this could never happen,” while people are coughing up blood during the conversation.  The taint of utter truth makes things all the more haunting, as does the proper decision to not play this up as tragedy porn: we are shown the horrid effects of the extreme doses of radiation, but not with weepy music playing and heart strings tugged.  The show plays with tension admittedly excellently, but again, it’s in service of how terrifying the reality was: moments of silence, treading through or across irradiated grounds, manual intervention needed – sent in knowing that deaths would result – when machines and the technology of the time failed.  Meanwhile, scientists Valery Legasov (Harris) and Ulana Khomyuk (Watson) walk the viewers and their supervisor of sorts, Boris Shcherbina (Skarsgård) through the specifics of what’s happened, and what can happen.  Harris and Watson portray their desperations perfectly – trying to resolve something that had never occurred before – and Skarsgård is commanding in his representation of a man doing best to remain dutiful to his country whilst the impact of what he’s dealing with sinks horrifyingly in…

All of this stuff makes for excellent drama, and serves the educational purpose of giving you so much context that the thought of further research and reading is of interest….

…And yet…

There are a few things which, in retrospect, continually caused me to tune out.  All of the positives I mention above, while those are happening, are gripping, and would wash away my tedium.  But Renck and Mazin, in wanting to show how the rest of the nation kept stumbling along while these things were happening, include some side stories: bits and pieces of those cleaning up the edges of the affected area, and of those who were part of (or indirectly involved with) the first cleanup efforts.  These stories do stand up on their own, and I understand the intention behind including them, but they ultimately weren’t – alas – very memorable to me.  Other reviews elsewhere seemed to connect with or be moved by the humanity and tragedy in these scenes, but there was a very clear desire of wanting to get on with it.  There’s also a bit of repetition in the recovery efforts… which would, I assume, have been the truth of the matter, but when watching several episodes back to back (which isn’t necessarily a fair criticism, as that’s not how they were broadcast), most of the ways the threats play out is handled similarly: radiation can only be handled in short bursts; people push that time to the limit; someone bumps into something and starts bleeding profusely.  Again, in each moment, it is terrifying, nail-biting stuff.  But sometimes I would flip back through episodes, trying to recall a character or scene, and it would dawn on me how relatively often we’d gone through that same sequence.  Lastly, as a backhanded criticism since I vaguely commented on it above: the show’s first episode goes at you cold, with no explanations.  We see things go wrong, and we know the gist because of the history, but the series plays hard with the science, and we have a bunch of nuclear reactor workers talking their lingo without cluing us in one bit.  It’s interesting, but also very distancing.  Structurally, this mirrors the lack of knowledge given to the people at the time, and I’m not sure if I could devise of a more effective way into the story, as front-loading us with science wouldn’t help, but only the promise of good things to come from a pre-review I’d read (I’d guess Roger Ebert’s site’s review) allowed me to accept that the slow-going style was worth it and not a gaffe.  This is somewhat repeated in miniature throughout: we are shown some cryptic things, and then it’s backed up with conversation later.  The praise is that I’m glad they went for this, instead of trying to TV it up, but the criticism is that I’m not positive this was the most effective application of the approach.

And so: yes, I’d still maintain that it’s a must-watch.  But with caveats, and because it’s presented in a purposefully slow manner, those caveats become a larger discrepancy, though, for what it’s worth, I didn’t so much notice the issues – distracted as I was by the show’s greater, thrilling, can’t-look-away peaks – until I started thinking about them for review.  A three-hour mini-series excised from the five episodes would likely solve any such problems.