Chernobyl: System Failure


After the premiere of this excellent miniseries, Chernobyl fever gripped the United States and Europe. There was a renewed interest in debating nuclear power and its awesome dangers, which came right at a time when the climate crisis demands fossil-free energy sources and some politicians argue that new nuclear power plants must be built, in spite of the risk. Each episode of Chernobyl was followed by a podcast that dug deeper into Soviet bureaucracy and the real-life stories behind the drama unfolding on HBO. And clueless influencers traveled to Chernobyl, instagramming their experiences.

Feeling the ground shake
On April 26th, 1986, people in the city of Pripyat in northern Ukraine feel the ground shaking and turn their attention to the nearby Chernobyl nuclear power plant. A fire is burning. There’s been a huge explosion. At first, no one realizes quite how serious the disaster is, but Boris Shcherbina (Stellan Skarsgård) is one of few politicians in the Soviet Union with the capacity to think outside the box. He calls Valery Legasov (Harris), a scientist who knows his nuclear power plants, and is startled to hear the truth: if not enough is done to contain the disaster the consequences will be catastrophic for the entire planet.

The two men are joined by a Minsk nuclear physicist, Ulana Khomyuk (Emily Watson), who brings her own perspective and investigative talents to the effort…

Reading every book and document
At first, Hollywood knew Craig Mazin as the guy who wrote (very unfunny) scripts for Scary Movie and Hangover sequels. But there was always a lot more to Mazin. 2014 was the year when he started looking into the Chernobyl disaster. After the election of Donald Trump, he saw the potential in telling a story about a society where lies and propaganda replace facts, jeopardizing regular people in the process. Mazin also lay his hands on every book or document on Chernobyl that he could find; he also visited the disaster site.

After the premiere of the miniseries, there was some controversy over one of the books, Nobel Prize-winner Svetlana Alexievich’s ”Voices from Chernobyl”. Mazin couldn’t have written his script without what came to be its lifeblood, this chronicle of what people in Pripyat experienced during that traumatic period – but the credits failed to mention the book. Fortunately, Mazin has been honest in interviews about how much Alexievich’s work meant to him. It has been noted by others with insight into the Soviet Union of the 1980s how well researched the series is, and its depiction of how an authoritarian system becomes its own worst enemy in times of crisis is compelling. The flaws in Soviet nuclear power plants at the time is certainly one thing, but the regime’s stubborn lack of transparency and reliance on fear and lies turn into greater problems.

The immediate battle to contain the disaster takes up several episodes and is credible, exciting and horrifying, an impact strengthened by Hildur Gudnadóttir’s quietly ominous music score and Johan Renck’s unsentimentally bleak but epic direction, culminating in a courtroom drama in the last episode that maintains the tension and sadness of what we saw at Chernobyl and in Pripyat.

The cast is another magnificent asset; they may not be Russian, but we don’t care. Harris got well-deserved attention as Legasov, a truth-teller whose destiny is sealed. Skarsgård and Watson (once lovers in Lars von Trier’s Breaking the Waves) are convincing as they try to work their way through a useless system.

Chernobyl 2019-U.S.-Britain. Made for TV. 307 min. Color. Created by Craig Mazin. Directed by Johan Renck. Cinematography: Jakob Ihre. Music: Hildur Gudnadóttir. Cast: Jared Harris (Valery Legasov), Stellan Skarsgård (Boris Shcherbina), Emily Watson (Ulana Khomyuk), Paul Ritter, Jessie Buckley, Adam Nagaitis… David Dencik, Fares Fares, Adam Lundgren.

Trivia: Originally shown in five episodes. Watson’s character is a composite of several unnamed scientists.

Emmys: Outstanding Limited Series, Directing, Writing. Golden Globes: Best Limited Series or TV Movie; Supporting Actor (Skarsgård). 

Last word: “The production design was headed up by Luke Hull, who did an incredible job. And then he had an entire team below him who worked on props, set decoration, set building, and wallpaper. But a lot of it was just us going to locations, which we knew had not changed significantly since the Soviet time, and learning from those things. We had a general standing philosophy from the beginning, which was: Accuracy is everything to us. I wanted people in Ukraine and Russia and Belarus to watch this show and say, ‘You see us; you saw us; thank you for that.’ As opposed to, ‘This is just some American’s fever dream of what Soviet citizenry was like.'” (Mazin, Vice)



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