Averting global catastrophe is not unfamiliar stakes for film and television. Any superhero, no matter his or her franchise, has done it countless times. But usually those feats of heroism do not include shooting all the animals — domestic and otherwise — within 1,000 square miles. That’s what makes the true story of Chernobyl a unique one to tell.
At the helm of this HBO and Sky TV miniseries is Craig Mazin, one of the most celebrated screenwriters in the business. More than his writing credits on such unnecessary sequels as Hangover 3 and Scary Movie 4, Mazin is famous for co-hosting Scriptnotes, the Holy Bible of podcasts for aspiring screenwriters on topics of craft and industry.
In Chernobyl, Mazin ventures outside his wheelhouse of ensemble comedy for a hell-on-earth tale of historical drama inside the late Soviet Union, chronicling the explosion of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in 1986 and its aftermath. The site of the action is dreary indeed: slate-gray concrete piled against a background of unrelenting cloud-cover. The environment buzzes with the unquiet chop of helicopter blades and the foreboding crackle of Geiger counters. On the ground, the unfortunate souls who find themselves within deadly range of the blast suffer burns. Those burns fester into lesions. Soon, the victims are fighting for final breath as their bodies undergo a living cellular decomposition. Slower deaths of protracted battles with cancer threaten the whole of the European continent if the invisible containment of the fallout cannot be mitigated before radiation irreversibly poisons the air and groundwater.
And yet the greatest obstacle the Soviets face is their own machine of misinformation. Unable to admit the severity of the danger to the outside world or even its own people, for that would in turn be an admission of Soviet incompetence, the Kremlin peddles in half-truths, which result in half-measures, to tackle this full-blown emergency.
The only hope is unspectacular men and women willing to take spectacular action. Mazin allows himself a few historical liberties in creating composite characters who embody the tensions of the moment. Stellan Skarsgård plays an apparatchik who realizes for the first time in his life that professional promotion might be secondary to public duty. Jared Harris and Emily Watson are scientists whose devotion to the truth tests their devotion to the Party. For much of the series, these three are caught in a frantic race to do whatever’s necessary to stave off nuclear holocaust. Often the last option is the only option: throwing a number of men at the problem, fully knowing you are condemning them to an early death — a strategy that came to be known as “counting lives.” Through these operations, we meet a cross-section of the Russian people — firefighters, coal miners, conscripted citizens — all sacrificing their lives to the tragic cause.
Chernobyl is a document of the awesome power of institutions to shape people, to train their actions, and to distort their perceptions of reality, but it is also a testament to the resplendent strength of the human spirit found in even the bleakest of landscapes, constrained under even the most repressive of regimes. But uplift does not win the balance here. The first time we meet our protagonist, it is in a flash-forward two years after the explosion. He hangs himself. Chernobyl is not the story of a hero persevering against all odds. It is an interrogation into the depth and management of lies and the dire necessity to unearth the truth. It details how hubris led to ignorance and then negligence of the world’s most unstable and deadliest source of energy.
It is a cautionary tale that political expedience and personal gain cannot overlook the responsibility of power. And power cannot overlook its responsibility to the truth. For the truth will out. No propaganda, sloganeering, or misinformation can deceive a fact from existing. Chernobyl challenges us to face the truth before we can no longer escape it.
Chernobyl can be seen on HBO.