HBO’s Chernobyl (2019)

Masterfully paced, effectively sinister, and gently cinematographed, HBO melds an elegant (though not fully capitalized in dystopian potential) slow-simmering human-centric physics-true revisualization of the infamous nuclear tragedy. 9/10.

Chernobyl dramatizes the story of the 1986 nuclear accident, one of the worst man-made catastrophes in history, and of the brave men and women who sacrificed to save Europe from unimaginable disaster, all the while battling a culture of disinformation.

*Possible spoilers ahead*

Review: April 26, 1986. The small city of Pripyat in northern Ukranian SSR is rocked by a nuclear explosion whose radiation is still felt in the city ruins to this day. Everyone knows the end-result, but how did such an incalculable tragedy of unparalleled proportions happen? That’s the question HBO sets out to answer in this devilishly-clever miniseries by the same name. Masterfully paced, effectively sinister, and gently cinematographed, HBO melds an elegant (though not fully capitalized in dystopian potential) slow-simmering human-centric science-accurate meticulous revisualization of the infamous nuclear tragedy that stands as some of the storied network’s best work to date and is crucial to behold in modern times.

The pacing, characterization, performances, and sinister atmospherics. HBO is known for having some of the best and most by-the-book pacing in the industry, and that company trade shines through here for a heavily addictive, snappy, smooth-as-a-cocktail binge of the series before you’d even think to blink. The characterization and storytelling prowess on display here is unbelievable; with a serious dark edge, intense attention to surgical historical detail in meticulous recreation of the scene as well as taking a few liberties when needed like adding Khomyuk as a symbolic iteration of the dozens of scientists who aided Legasov. The stars of the show are clearly Jared Harris as the white-knighted nuclear physicist Legasov who warned and was laughed off with overwhelming prejudice and snarky sneers for being one of the few people with Emily Watson’s Scherbina and Khomyuk to recognize and accurate assess the sheer scale of horror they were facing juxtaposed by Paul Ritter, Stellan Skarsgärd, and Con O’Neill’s bureaucratic fat-cats who couldn’t even be bothered to believe science experts for an adequate response and took every cut-corner in the book for their own selfish desires. The performances all-around are sensational with not a weak link to be found, and this is only bolstered by the inventively indie/small-budget camerawork with nice, gentle, intimate cinematographical feel as elegant as the snowflakes of radioactivity cascading down on the town’s residents like death angels.

The multivariance of Chernobylian perspectives. Another fantastic decision in sculpting this meticulous series was to explore the many different effects and byproduct storylines Chernobyl had – including ones and people’s you wouldn’t think or even want to see but need to. In everything from the burly miners who had to dig tunnels and install safety barriers/measures to prevent further reactor meltdown into the groundwater for contamination, residents who had lived there their whole lives – some of them for generations – and couldn’t stand leaving their only home or family, soldiers tasked with the harrowing-but-necessary task of euthanizing innocent pets and animals in grotesque ways from the surrounding area (some of them babies/puppies) due to contamination to prevent further passing on of death, scientists in and out of the control room, and backroom governmental meetings and trials wherein some involved wanted to illuminate the truth in the face of overwhelming evil forces wanting to prevent that from happening, the juggling and juxtaposition of it all in a 5-episode miniseries is masterful. The psycholocal and physical terror of Chernobyl is adequately painted from every possible person involved’s viewpoint for an overall canvas of perhaps the most complete God’s-eye view of the infamous tragedy that rocked the world.

The relevancy, accuracy, and requisite correspondence to modern times. HBO’s life-lesson and symbolism-rife series comes at an absolutely critical time in our planetary history: when science-deniers just as bad (if not worse) than Chernobyl’s humanity-depriven swine are walking amongst us and – even arguably – fashionable. Through extremely-accurate nuclear physics and complex chemistry, we are given a complete step-by-step account of how the unconscionable act happened, yet done so in a manner even common watchers and non-scientsits can follow along. It portrays the illuminating light of science over the (radioactive) ashes of superstition/lies in such a spectacular way, it’s almost impossible not to gush over as a scientist, and is wild to behold the bravery of Legasov and crew for trying to tell the truth and save future lives in the face of overwhelming oppressive, ominous forces in the form of the KGB/ Soviets threatening with serious power from every level of government and life doing everything from squashing Legasov’s testimony for going off-script to plead the union to fix its reactors’ AZ-5 flaw that caused Chernobyl to discrediting his legacy until his suicide forced the real account to be released – and still lies seeped into the official records of Chernobyl like the government records unchanged since 1987 putting the death toll at 31 people when the real one reached up to 93,000. If there is anything this series is trying to teach, it’s to put away your human arrogance and reactivity-over-proactivity penchant to listen to the geniuses/scientists devoting their entire lives to the study of these things for universal good. In the face of near-flatal smear campaigns against science in everything from anti-vaxxers to climate change deniers, that message cannot come at a more vital time to prevent us from going even further back on the evolutionary scale so that more catastrophes like Chernobyl – as fast or slower-but-still-as-disastrous can happen again.

Amongst the only flaws in Chernobyl are that it could’ve used more dystopia or horror to add to the macabric atmospherics hinted upon but not fully capitalized on. With all the nuclear terror going on, there were millions of possibilities they could’ve taken the series instead of an absolute, documentarial by-the-book historical retelling based solely in reality and finding recreation. They could’ve loosened up a little and explored some of the psychological horror or esoterica accompanying such a complex, esoteric, mysterious topic to make for an even more interesting and imagination-balanced product. There are even allusions to perfect possible set-ups like the flashlights failing and getting stuck in total darkness in radiation-infested runoff with dosimeters clicking wildly around you – but to no avail. While the extreme realism is refreshing and meticulous attention to visualizing (medically-accurate) radiation burn imagery startling, it could’ve used some more psychologically-horrific deliberation to further fuel the genric flair as well. Also the pacing has minor, slow lulls especially in Ep. 3 and 4 making for some rough spots in what is overall though but a spectacular canvas with magnitudinal ramifications.

Overall, HBO’s Chernobyl is a showcase of why it’s still (even with a certain series just ending) one of the best networks for original programming in television. Masterfully paced, effectively sinister, and gently cinematographed with a refreshing high-realism base, HBO melds an elegant (though not fully capitalized in dystopian potential), slow-simmering, human-centric, science-accurate, and vital in trust-scientists/truth message revisualization of the infamous nuclear tragedy that befell millions in the Ukranian SSR region in 1986. “What is the cost of lies?”

Overall Rating: 9/10