So, if you’ll pardon the indirect wind-up for a moment: I’ll never forget discovering Band of Brothers. It was the first time a historical drama ever floored me with its dramatization of actual events. Sure, it took some liberties in the details for the sake of storytelling, but there was an authenticity to it, and perhaps moreso a powerfully conveyed sense of astonishment that anything so mad, massive, and momentous could have happened. Well, the HBO miniseries Chernobyl (2019) — there it is! — is the first historical drama I’ve seen since Band of Brothers with that kind of staggering effect. It’s an incredible, mind-blowing story.
It takes place in the Ukraine in 1986, near the small town of Pripyat, at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. Late one night, a safety test goes horribly wrong, causing a massive explosion. The technicians and scientists onsite have no idea how it happened. Firefighters arrive on the scene to put out the blaze, and nearby citizens watch from afar. Few of them will live much longer: the reactor has ruptured, irradiating the surrounding area to catastrophic levels. Back in Moscow, however, nobody knows the true extent of the fallout — thanks to the incompetence of the onsite officials, faulty communications, and the inefficiencies of Soviet bureaucracy. Enter Valery Lugasov (Jared Harris), a nuclear physicist enlisted to help the politicians make sense of what happened. When the Party officials, including Boris Shcherbina (Stellan Skarsgård), prove far too sanguine about the urgency of the crisis, Lugasov challenges Party decorum to stridently convince them of the disaster’s severity. As a result, he and Shcherbina are sent to the site to evaluate the situation on the ground, which is far worse than either of them could have imagined.
Driven by an inspired, compelling performance by Harris, Chernobyl is an intense, bleak, and utterly chilling chronicle of a monumental tragedy. And, in fact, it was a disaster that could well have been worse if not for the efforts of Lugasov, Shcherbina, and the many Soviet citizens who worked to mitigate the after-effects. It celebrates the selfless heroics of these people, many of whom knew in the moment that their efforts were likely to be fatal. Like Band of Brothers, it takes liberties to streamline the storytelling, most notably in the character of Ulana Khomyuk (Emily Watson), a composite of the many scientists who collaborated with Lugasov to investigate the disaster, make sense of it, and posit solutions. But this dramatic license does nothing to lessen the gripping, suspenseful execution of a truly epic story — one that provides an enlightening window onto the history and science of the event, while also incisively criticizing corrupt institutions that systemically degrade the truth. The United States of 2020 would do well to learn the lessons of this tale. A fascinating and unforgettable series.