Spare, bleak and devastating, HBO’s “Chernobyl” captures a moment during the waning years of the Cold War when the Soviet Union experienced a nuclear disaster, then tried to cover up the extent of the damage.
The hideous consequences of that are presented in unflinching fashion over a five-part miniseries that’s as much a cautionary warning about current technology as a look backward.
Indeed, the prospect of nuclear holocaust has long been a source of fascination in TV and movies, although the most memorable artifacts – titles like “The Day After,” “The China Syndrome” and “Testament” – hail from the pre-Chernobyl era.
“Chernobyl” pulls back the Iron Curtain, revealing the incompetence that allowed the disaster to occur in 1986 and the face-saving contortions by the Kremlin that complicated efforts to address the crisis in an open and expeditious manner.
That daunting ask heavily falls to Valery Legasov (Jared Harris), a leading nuclear physicist enlisted to oversee the response. He’s paired with a bureaucrat, Deputy Prime Minister Boris Shcherbina (Stellan Skarsgard), whose steely demeanor is balanced by his lack of knowledge, forcing him to defer to Legasov while recognizing that his proposals and conclusions will land like a lead-irradiated balloon back in Moscow.
“It’s not alarmist if it’s a fact,” Legasov says in the second episode, although no one seems particularly eager to listen to his worst-case scenarios. Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev (David Dencik) says, “It seems like it’s well in hand,” before officials realize the modest radiation levels initially recorded are because the available devices can’t register the massive scope of the leak – a threat that, if left unchecked, will spread “until the entire continent is dead.”
Beyond the political and scientific response, writer Craig Mazin and director Johan Renck humanize “Chernobyl” with tales of people impacted by the explosion and radiation poisoning, including residents, first responders and those dispatched on what amount to suicide missions – either immediately or from the cancer sure to follow – to fix the plant’s compromised core.
Aiding Legasov, meanwhile, is another nuclear physicist (Emily Watson), who has the audacity to tell a political appointee, “Before you were deputy secretary you worked in a shoe factory.” (One of the closing onscreen notes says that her character is a composite of scientists who spoke out about the disaster at the time.)
“Chernobyl’s” pacing slows in the third and fourth chapters, but the miniseries finishes powerfully. Throughout, the filmmakers produce haunting images and sounds of the sick and dying, as well as quietly horrifying moments, like soldiers killing pets that have been contaminated.
There’s also ample heroism on display by the workers and scientists – the latter knowing they’re imperiled not only by exposure to radiation but if they dare to contradict the state’s desperate cover story. As a result, they’re treated like Chicken Littles for calculating that the disaster will render part of the region “completely uninhabitable” for a century.
Harris perfectly captures the terrible position in which Legasov finds himself, knowing that speaking truth to power could have dire consequences. The reluctance to acknowledge the roots of what transpired exacerbates the problem, and attempts to reassure residents with the mantra “Please remain calm” stand in stark contrast to the horrors witnessed.
The Soviets didn’t have a monopoly on stupidity, and the dangers of tampering with such forces are hardly confined by geography or even relegated to the past. Perhaps for that reason, watching “Chernobyl” provokes a variety of feelings, but calm surely isn’t among them.
“Chernobyl” premieres May 6 at 9 p.m. on HBO, to be followed by subsequent episodes each Monday.