Star – Stellan Skarsgård and Emily Watson
My Rating ****
Genre – TV Mini Series > Drama
Run Time – 5 one hour episodes.
Certificate – 15
Country – US/UK/
Awards – 2 Wins & 25 Nominations
EMMYS – 19 nominations and 4 nominees
= = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = =
It’s fair to say the Chernobyl disaster was pretty scary back then. The open reactor on fire for two weeks put out 2 Hiroshima atom bombs a day of radiation, a total of 400 bombs in the clean up to the modern day. Even though it’s an impressive sealed sarcophagus today the radiation will be seeping though in 100 years time so the engineers will have to do it all over, at a cost of $50 billion dollars. But has the drama of the story ever really been told in a TV or film drama? Well it has now and it’s very entertaining. The Russians still claim that officially only 31 people died from the blast and subsequent radiation release. The UN says nearer 4000 in the exclusion zone alone. They were so in denial over the shame of the disaster the other 16 reactors with the same fault were left running for up to 5 years after, the final one fixed in the year of 2000. Some say Chernobyl was what really brought down the Iron Curtain, not David Hasselhoff.
Some of the Russian government was not happy with this drama, and its worldwide success, and so Russian state TV channel NTV is making its own more “patriotic” account, involving a fictional plot based on a conspiracy theory that a CIA agent was in Chernobyl to sabotage the plant.
It’s a SKY UK/HBO production and so mostly British and European actors. They were going to try and do it in Russian with English subtitles but felt that would make it harder to sell around the world. Most of the Russians involved in the disaster that could comment said it was a pretty accurate representation of what happened and also enjoyed it. As it stands its 4th in the all time IMDB list for a TV Series, a colossal 9.4 rating, the same as Game of Thrones. The show has been so popular it has seen a spike on the tourist Geigercounter with a 35% increase with people sightseeing there. Yes, you can go visit the power station. It’s safe if you don’t hang around too long.
The action begins with the actual blast after the control center guys press a safety shut down button. Some of the nearby town of Pripyat are woken in the night by the bang. At first the engineers refuse to believe the reactor has exploded, one never has, chief engineer Nikolai Fomin (Nikolai Fomin) particularly un-keen for that to have happened, first responders like the firemen oblivious to the danger they are about to tackle because of that, a young one, Vasily Ignatenko (Adam Nagaitis), picking up highly radiated pieces of the reactor spread around the site to do his job. Most of the firemen died later.
Boris Shcherbina (Stellan Skarsgård), the Council of Ministers’ deputy chairman, is assigned to fix the disaster and the subsequent clean up. He appoints Valery Legasov (Jared Harris), the deputy director of the Kurchatov Institute, to brief him on nuclear energy and what they can do to stop the escalating event, which could eventually irradiate most of Russia and Eastern Europe if not plugged. Legasov is alarmed by the first reports and informs the Kremlin that the core is open. The top of the Communist party does not want to hear that and punishes him by sending him there to check for himself. When the two arrive in the helicopter its clear there is graphite on the roof of the plant next to a huge great hole and destroyed reactor building. Graphite can only come from one place, the reactor core. And it’s on fire and pumping out terrifying levels of radiation.
The two push Brezhnev to evacuate Pripyat, an action that would let the world know something is up and so shame. But first they have to put out the fire and somehow stem the contamination. This will involves extraordinary human sacrifice for the greater good of Russia, three divers dispatched to vent water directly below the blown reactor as their radiation detectors go crazy, incredibly bravery.
Ulana Khomyuk (Emily Watson), a nuclear physicist from Minsk, is the first outsider to realize something is up at Chernobyl and risks the ire of the KGB to do what’s needed to warn people just how serious this event is. But not enough is being done and a second and far more catastrophic explosion is nearing, if they don’t act soon as team of roughneck Ukrainian miners are conscripted to tunnel up to the reactor core. I can’t imagine union labor being too keen on that today.
This is very entertaining folks and must see. It works because the drama and story is done so simply but the main points and science delivered with an intelligent punch. They use composite characters to drive the drama around the facts and the Russian peasants rather two dimensional to keep it simple there, the state communism system leading the people to disaster rather than the other way around. The director uses real phone calls and loud speaker clips from 1986 to heighten the horror and spikes in other gruesome and harrowing library footage. It is very effective and stops this being too glossy, another one of its big pluses.
It’s not 9.4 IMDB good though (and nor is Game of Thrones) but still a must watch if you don’t want to be too cerebrally tested on nuclear fission. The final episode at the inquiry how they explain how a nuclear reactor works and the beauty of it in a way you can almost understand is fascinating. It’s all to do with controlling the uranium reaction from running out of control by balancing it with other materials yet still producing the steam needed to create power.
The acting is spot on and Jared Harris the standout as the torn man between state and science. It doesn’t seem odd the Russians are speaking clipped Oxbridge English either and makes an excellent TV drama far more accessible. What’s also interesting is the little known detail added, like the prospect of a huge atomic explosion at the plant two months after the reactor blew up. I won’t spoil it on that and just let you enjoy this more.
Imdb.com – 9.5/10.0 (343,324votes)
Rottentomatos.com –96% critic’s approval
Metacritic.com – 80% critic’s approval