Cast: Jared Harris, Stellan Skarsgard, Emily Watson

Director: Johan Renck

5 hours

As the present day becomes increasingly open to the very real possibility of apocalyptic ideation, it might be useful to remember that an approximation has already happened, and not even that long ago - and we apparently, somehow, survived it. In April 1986, the reactor at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, in present-day Ukraine, exploded, leaving a large number of first-responder widows and a legacy of environmental annihilation. The incident and its aftermath are the subject of this outstanding five-section dramatised documentary made for television but more than worthy of a cinematic review here.

Chernobyl is devastatingly realistic  - with an outstanding cast led by Stellan Skarsgård as Boris Scherbina, a Kremlin apparatchik, and Jared Harris as Valery Legasov, the nuclear physicist who made the government understand that they cannot lie and obfuscate their way out of a nuclear disaster. Emily Watson rounds it out as Ulana Komyuk, a Byelorussian scientist determined to find out what really happened in order to keep it from ever happening again. The soundtrack is a testament to the terrifying sound of a chattering Geiger counter. Writer and producer Craig Mazin is relentless in his depiction of human corruption and environmental breakdown, and director Johan Renck offers an anatomy of fear, incompetence, hopelessness, baseness and self-destruction. It is desolate, desperate and excruciatingly vivid in its authenticity. The innumerable shots of radiation burn victims lighting cigarettes, creates a stanza of visual poetry: Chernobyl is not about a reactor core melting down, as much as it is about people adamantly opposed to looking reality in the face, or acting in their own short-term interests while actively detonating their long-term ones.

Everything about the series is brilliantly tragic and horrific, narratively and artistically. But the vein of absolute horror that runs through it is the knowledge that this actually happened. A nuclear reactor exploded, releasing catastrophic amounts of radiation and requiring mass evacuation and the destruction of countless animals and acres of forest and farmland. Hundreds were sickened and many, many thousands died (the authorities in the region still maintain that only 31 perished). Mitigation efforts, three decades years later, still account for something like 7% of the Ukraine’s annual government spending. But as significant as any of that is the fact that the denial and corruption and wanton refusal to deal with reality also happened. 

Chernobyl is, as much as anything, a comment on the power of government to impede positive solutions to horrendous problems. At this point in our history, it’s worth remembering all of these things. There are disasters and mass-casualty events that no one could realistically prevent. Chernobyl was not one of them. It wasn’t the first human-caused mass catastrophe and it wasn’t the last, and we need to be sure we don’t forget that, and do everything in our power to prevent it from happening again.