HBO’s ‘Chernobyl’ Showcases Harrowing Depravity and Devastation

The catastrophic historical explosion is ushered back into the cultural spotlight 33 years after occurring with the treatment of HBO’s high production value.
Hbo Chernobyl
By  · Published on April 29th, 2019

The forthcoming five-part HBO mini-series Chernobyl premiered its first two episodes at the Tribeca Film Festival this weekend. I would encourage you to prepare for series creator Craig Mazin’s project emotionally, but I don’t know if there is any way to ready yourself for the shock that comes with feasting your eyes on one of the most devastating and depraved moments in modern human history.

You know the series from the gripping trailer that precedes the new Game of Thrones episodes. In a strange—or perhaps well-marketed—way, the ads put Thrones fans in the mood for the immense gravity of the eighth and final season. The teaser channels the enormity and severity of the Chernobyl disaster itself, a nuclear accident that took place on April 26, 1986, near Pripyat, Soviet Ukraine when the core of a nuclear reactor exploded and created a threat of radioactive fallout previously unknown to humankind.

The first episode plays out the actual accident. It’s one of the fastest hours of television you’ll ever see. The unrelenting brutality of the nuclear radioactivity lodges itself in your psyche and everything happens in a flash of disaster. The group of scientists responsible for the accident rush around to find out what happened in hopes that they might fix the problem. Timestamps pop up with the utmost significance, as we know each passing minute compounds the atrocity.

The closer the scientists get to the damage, the slower they walk, horrified as the reality of the tragedy sinks in. As they near the explosion, their faces become exponentially redder and rawer, eventually eroding in plain sight. For those that retreat to the control room before getting too close, projectile vomiting consumes them, and they begin to lose control of their bodies entirely. One decaying scientist’s dying request is a cigarette, a much more common source of toxicity, of course, but one that has claimed countless lives. Chew on that commentary on the depraved nature of the human condition.

As Professor Valery Legasov (Jared Harris) and nuclear physicist Ulana Khomyuk (Emily Watson) explain to Deputy Prime Minister Boris Scherbina (Stellan Skarsgard) and the Soviet executive board in the second episode, the nuclear radiation in the air is like billions of trillions of tiny bullets firing off in every direction, eating through everything in their path. When you combine that concept with the image of ground zero billowing these bullets at an astounding rate and the Lars von Trier degree of hopelessness that Watson and Skarsgard bring to the table, it’s emotionally and psychologically crippling. The amount of audible, breathy expletives voiced in my 10-person screening would’ve made you think you were in a room of a hundred.

The devastation you feel from the series is a product of the explosion, but the depravity comes from the marriage of negligence and corruption in the decision makers. As if the catastrophic accident isn’t worth revisiting enough on its own, the implications of Chernobyl are complicated by the fact that the Soviet leaders in charge of handling it were more concerned with national communist pride, playing the event down, and thus, ignoring the fatal facts at hand, which threatened a good portion of the continent.

For example, the lead scientist in the opening scenes commands his underlings to check on the reactor, and even when the few who make it back tell him the core has exploded, he insists they’re delusional, rejecting the overwhelming proof found in their decaying faces. He charges into a board meeting with some higher-ranking officials in the middle of the night to assuage their concerns, assuring them everything is okay and under control. He insists the roof just caught fire. They side with him and order more scientist underlings to assess the damage firsthand, threatening to have Soviet guards shoot them in the head if they disobey. Their demeanors are reminiscent of the utterly reproachable evil harbored by Colonel William Tavington (Jason Isaacs) in The Patriot—the historically accurate kind that makes you feel sick.

It isn’t until Legasov erupts in a meeting with General Secretary Gorbachev that anyone in power makes a rational, unselfish decision. Enter: Scherbina, a boorish political executive who reluctantly begins to believe Legasov and Khomyuk as undeniable evidence rolls in, like nuclear physicists from Sweden 680 miles away contacting the Soviet Union 48 hours after the explosion to report radioactive particles contaminating their air, or helicopters decomposing and crashing when they get too close to the explosion.

The ethical vacuum among those in power is infuriating to witness (alongside the hushed, helpless manner of those under their control). I can imagine an “oversaturation” argument against the series based on the real-world parallels of political corruption we witness daily in the Trump era. But regardless of where we are now, this is important history—albeit, dramatized—for several reasons, chief among them the corruption on display in the face of widespread catastrophe. It’s time for mass culture’s collective memory to conjure it once again.

This is the kind of history we can learn from if we give it the attention it deserves. Grade school textbooks didn’t do it justice where I grew up—a mere paragraph, if that. If it was the same for you, that’s not enough. And if it’s that way for enough Americans, it begs the question “Why weren’t we educated on the most devastating nuclear catastrophe in human history?’” Especially when considering how recently it took place.

Yes, Chernobyl inspires desolate, hopeless feelings, but it’s a triple-pronged attacked in that it’s thrilling as can be and thoroughly educational, too. And while the first two episodes have been incredibly heavy, they have also been an exercise in stellar filmmaking and performing. Moreover, there is hope on the horizon. We know that because we know Russia is still habitable. If corrective efforts had failed, it would be a wasteland of radiation. But don’t expect the hope to seep in immediately. As Mazin confirmed on Twitter, “It will get worse before it gets better. Just like the real thing.”

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Luke Hicks is a New York City film journalist by way of Austin, TX, and an arts enthusiast who earned his master's studying film philosophy and ethics at Duke. He thinks every occasion should include one of the following: whiskey, coffee, gin, tea, beer, or olives. Love or lambast him @lou_kicks.