Review: Chernobyl (a HBO mini series)

April 25, 2020
Chernobyl

‘CHERNOBYL’ is an HBO mini series of five episodes based on the stories of people connected with the nuclear plant disaster that made headlines worldwide on April 26, 1986. It won as best limited series, writing and direction in the 71st Emmy Awards, and also best mini series in the Golden Globes. It's based largely on the book “Voices from Chernobyl”, written by Belarus writer Svetlana Alexievich who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2015. Chernobyl is in Ukraine but it’s actually nearer the Belarus border. 

We were so affected by the final episode we couldn’t stop ourselves from crying as we read in the epilogue what happened to the characters portrayed in the mini series. Written by Craig Mazin and directed by Johan Renck, the series starts with Valery Legasov (Jared Harris), deputy director the Kurchatov Institute who helped in the clean up efforts after the disaster, recording on tape the truth about what really happened, then committing suicide by hanging himself. This happens on the 2nd anniversary of the accident.

Then we see what happens in the control room at that fateful night when all hell breaks loose. We see people from the nearby village of Pripyat going out of their homes to watch the explosion and the fire at 1 AM, many of them watching it from a bridge not knowing they’re exposing themselves to deadly radiation. We’re later told that all the people on that bridge eventually died due to various ailments from being exposed to highly radio-active elements and the bridge has since been labelled as the Bridge of Death. 

We then see the firefighters who are the first to respond to the disaster and later on, we meet other people who will help out in the aftermath, including 300 miners who are tasked to dig up a tunnel under Reactor 4 to prevent more explosions. Deputy Chairman Boris Shcherbina (Stellan Skaarsgard) is assigned by USSR Communist Leader Michael Gorbachev (David Dencik) to head the investigating committee. 

At first, he is hostile to Legasov who he accuses of misinformation to make the situation look worse. But eventually, Legasov is proven right, specially with the arrival of a nuclear physicist from Minsk, Ulana Khomyuk (Emily Watson), who interviewed all the technical people present during the explosion and did extensive research on what could have gone wrong. This character is actually a composite of all the scientists who contributed to the investigation and recommended solutions. 

Shcherbina finally realizes the gravity of the situation and eventually asks for the evacuation of thousands of residents living in the area. The film is presented like a documentary but to make it more dramatic, there are ordinary characters introduced so we can follow their individual stories. 

One of them is Vasily (Adam Nagaitis), a brave firefighter who later suffers from radiation, and his wife Lyudmilla (Jessie Buckley, who played Queen Victoria in “Dolittle”). Theirs is a very tragic story. Vasily dies and leaves Lyudmilla pregnant, but her baby dies also because of radiation. Doctors say she’ll never get pregnant again but the epilogue says she proves the doctors wrong. 

Another individual character is Pavel (Bryan Keoghan), a teenager who volunteers as a liquidator of animals in Pripyat who are contaminated with radiation and have to be killed. It’s a rite of passage for him as he hesitantly kills pets like dogs and cats, with a jaded war veteran from Afghanistan as his mentor. 

The film’s climax is in the show’s 5th and final episode when a trial was held to crucify the nuclear plant officers who are responsible for the accident. But Legasov springs a big surprise and reveals that the root of the disaster is actually the negligence of the communist party who tried to supress it as it will no doubt tarnish and humiliate the communist government. He is immediately terminated and told he will never work again. 

The epilogue shows actual pictures and videos of Legasov and other people mentioned in the show, telling us what became of them and how the Chernobyl disaster ultimately contributed to the dissolution of the USSR. Ukraine is now an independent state. Legasov is vindicated after his suicide as all his revelations in the tapes he left behind were circulated among various scientists and the government eventually renovated all their other nuclear plants to prevent more accidents like Chernobyl from happening again. 

The official statistics given by the communist government then states that only 31 people died as a result of the disaster, but the truth is that the numbers can go up to 90,000. It is during the epilogue that we can no longer contain our tears and we cried unabashedly thinking of all those people who perished in that tragedy. It’s truly heartrending and after this, the Fukushima nuclear disaster happened in Japan in 2011. Aren’t we glad the one being constructed then in Bataan was aborted, knowing how inept our public officials are?