REVIEW: Chernobyl (2019 – Mini-Series)

Release Poster – HBO

The following is a review of the HBO / Sky Atlantic Limited Series Chernobyl — Created by Craig Mazin.

While Game of Thrones, HBO’s proudest possession, was coming to an end amid fan uproar and disappointment, the co-writer of The Hangover Parts II and III, Craig Mazin, was quietly releasing his masterpiece to the world on the very same television network. Released alongside an in-depth after-the-episode podcast, Chernobyl is, now that it has ended, starting to earn the acclaim and popularity that it deserves. I think Chernobyl is one of the most accomplished mini-series that I’ve ever seen, if not the most incredible and impressive of its kind.

Craig Mazin’s Chernobyl is a dramatization of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster and the events that followed in the Soviet Union. The series is seen from the perspective of the men who worked at the plant and tried to prevent the disaster, from the perspective of Lyudmilla Ignatenko (played by Jessie Buckley) — the wife of a firefighter who attempted to put out the fire at the power plant — and from the perspective of two scientists, Valery Legasov (played by Jared Harris) and Ulana Khomyuk (played by Emily Watson), who, in the series, both tried to prevent further disasters and unveil the events that transpired for all to understand much to the frustration of the Soviet Union.

“I prefer my opinion to yours.” – From Chernobyl, episode two, ‘Please Remain Calm’.

Where does one begin with Craig Mazin’s masterwork? This is an incredibly timely docudrama about multiple disasters and the frightening Soviet cover-up. His show doesn’t raise its finger at Soviets as much as it honors Eastern European civilians and culture while condemning any form of governmental concealment. I was impressed by how the show, for the most part, steered clear of hackneyed Soviet stereotypes. Thankfully, the show doesn’t disrespect its Soviet characters. Though some characters are clueless, there are strong-willed Soviet leaders as well as brave and noble Soviet generals and nurses. Chernobyl has no intention of vilifying a group of people. Instead, it vilifies select individuals and their poor decision-making.

It is a show that tries to unpack and demystify the complexities of the nuclear disaster and the following Soviet ‘clean-up’ in just five hours. Mazin and director Johan Renck’s series never outstays its welcome and every episode leaves you wanting more even though watching it can feel draining because of the momentousness of it all. It is a tough show to watch but it is also rewarding precisely because it is so fine-tuned and sharply put together.

My one and only gripe with the show is the fact that none of the actors speak in Russian. Every actor speaks in English, even though some of the documents and buildings have Russian writing on them. However, thankfully, none of the actors do the stereotypical thick Russian accents that can sometimes doom a series. I got over this nitpick fairly easily, though, thanks to the incredible attention to detail in Mazin’s show as well as the gripping performances and engrossing narrative.

The series features a strong supporting cast that includes actors like Fares Fares, Barry Keoghan, Jessie Buckley, and Emily Watson who all play memorable characters and give arresting performances. However, there can be no doubt that much of the series, though they are absent for almost all of the first episode, is carried by Stellan Skarsgård and Jared Harris whose characters’ relationship deepens as the series moves forward.

Chernobyl is jaw-droppingly frightening. I think it is, in moments, scarier than any horror film released in years. They achieve this level of terror in a ‘true story’ series by way of tension built by blood-chilling sound design (i.e. using the sound of the dosimeter as the voice of an intangible and invisible silent killer — radiation) and panic-inducing and horrifying make-up that make the hospital scenes with the victims of Chernobyl feel bleak and full of sorrow. No show has ever made me feel as unwell and infuriated as Chernobyl did.

Craig Mazin’s Chernobyl is a haunting history lesson. It is a harrowing true story about an event shrouded in controversy and once in secrecy. The meticulous series is concerned with the question that opens the show: “What is the cost of lies?” and the show goes on to tell an arresting, tough — at times, infuriating — and incredibly timely story about governmental distrust and the dangers of governmental spin and concealment. HBO’s Chernobyl is one of the best series of 2019.

A+

– Jeffrey Rex Bertelsen.

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