Breaking Down What Makes ‘Chernobyl’ So Damn Good

On IMDb, HBO’s Chernobyl is now the top-rated television show of all-time. Whether you agree with this ranking is a matter of opinion, but what is far less up for debate is that the miniseries is an exemplary docudrama. To understand just how singularly well-crafted Chernobyl is, it’s key to break down not just the things that the series does well, but what the alternative is. In other words, to understand what makes the best the best, you need to know what the rest did poorly.

In the case of Chernobyl, there is a particularly convenient point of comparison because while it may be the best and most recent nuclear docudrama, it is far from the first. Hollywood wasted no time at all in trying to capitalize on the development of the atomic bomb, which made its way as a plot device into a range of films just months after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The idea to dramatize the “true story” of the bomb’s development arose more or less instantaneously, but the film ultimately took two years to develop—The Beginning or the End, released in 1947.

The Beginning or the End is, to put it bluntly, a hot mess. In a nutshell, the film covers the development of atomic energy from the splitting of the atom to the end of World War II from the perspective of Matt Cochran, a (fictional) young nuclear physicist who somehow always happens to be smack-dab in the middle of things. First, he’s present for the splitting of the atom as an assistant to Enrico Fermi. He then joins his employer in alerting President Franklin Roosevelt with help from Albert Einstein, who of course immediately takes a shine to Matt and enlists him to help draft a letter to the president. Matt then joins the Manhattan Project and is present for the first successful chain reaction. He continues to be in the thick of things through the development of the atom bomb, in spite of various moral qualms with the endeavor and is part of the crew who transports the bomb and is responsible for its final assembly. In assembling the bomb, Matt manages to irradiate himself to death, but not before writing a farewell letter to his wife and woefully lamenting that perhaps death is the punishment he deserves for his role in developing the atomic bomb. In the film’s final scene, Matt’s widow—who is pregnant, to make everything just a little bit more dramatic—reads the letter, in which he waxes poetic about the dawning of a new utopian age brought about by nuclear energy. Cue triumphant music, the end. All in all, the film is a trite melodrama with lackluster production values that can’t decide if it’s propaganda or a cautionary tale. Much to MGM’s chagrin, audiences of 1947 didn’t think much of it either, and it was a box-office flop in spite of a considerable marketing campaign.

Matt’s ghost watches as his widow, Anne, reads his farewell letter.

That said, on the surface, The Beginning or the End actually possesses more than a few similarities with Chernobyl. For instance, it chooses to tell the story focusing on the perspective of nuclear scientists, prominently features a young pregnant woman widowed after her spouse succumbs to radiation poisoning, and stars a composite scientist character surrounded by real historical figures (in Chernobyl, while Valery Legasov was a historical figure, Ulana Khomyuk is a composite). For our purposes today, this is fantastic, as it provides natural points of comparison.

Now, before we go any further, we must define our terms—or really, just the singular term, docudrama. Telling a truly good story is never an easy task, but docudramas are particularly tricky because they are servants of two masters, much as the term itself suggests: the historical record (“docu”) and compelling narrative (“drama”). And, to make matters that much more complicated, docudramas dealing with the history of science and technology have a third concern to deal with: scientific truth. In short, an ideal STEM docudrama has to juggle history, science, and telling a compelling story, so it’s hardly surprising that most attempts drop at least one ball. Chernobyl does a commendable job in all regards while The Beginning or the End consistently falls flat on its face. But don’t just take my word for it. Let’s go through and break things down.

Let’s start with the science. I’m not going to go too much into the scientific accuracy of The Beginning or the End, because A) when it was released a lot of information about atomic energy was still pretty hush-hush which makes the situation really messy and B) it was released 72 years ago, so the very notion of what is “scientifically accurate” information has evolved considerably. However, there is one crucial thing to note regarding the depiction of science in the film—namely, that it is not at all well integrated. Instead of the science being part of the narrative, the film plays out like a romantic melodrama punctuated by the occasional science lesson.

To compare Chernobyl, let’s look at one specific example: graphite. Now there’s that old narrative adage “show don’t tell,” but when it comes to science often times there’s a fundamental issue: certain things just aren’t showable. Still, series creator and writer Craig Mazin takes considerable effort to show as much as possible. Long before graphite is brought up in dialogue—near the end of the series premiere—it’s already had more than one closeup. In fact, graphite is one of the first things the camera chooses to spotlight once the firefighters arrive, with one particularly hapless member among their ranks, Misha, picking up a chunk of the stuff. As he studies it, the substance catches the light, giving off a tell-tale sparkle to give the more observant viewers at home a clue of exactly what they’re looking at—even if the non-nuclear scientists among us might not realize why it is important we are seeing it. “What’s this?” Misha then asks his colleague—yet another indicator that the substance’s presence is something strange, and therefore significant.

After Misha drops the graphite to get back to business, we see him looking to his hand, later shaking it as if trying to cast something off. The action now goes back to inside the power plant for a few minutes. When we return to the firefighters, Misha is howling on the ground, a medic removing his glove to reveal a severe burn. Evidently out of commission, Vasily—the central figure of firefighter storyline—is called over to man Misha’s hose, putting him right at the heart of all the radioactive action.

Now, here is the point where the series really goes above and beyond. Because in this scenario you already have a rather standard but effective tragedy going—a heroic working man dutifully following orders, unknowingly condemning himself to death, etc.—but ultimately, this is not how the scene plays out, because after Vasily grabs the firehose Misha dropped, there’s a quick, but hugely significant series of shots: Vasily glances back to Misha, looks up at the blaze, and then down at the ground, zeroing in on yet another graphite chunk. When the camera returns to Vasily’s face, his expression makes it clear that he understands something is very wrong. Instead of emphasizing dramatic irony to pack an emotional punch, Mazin takes the road less traveled by and instead goes for the more complex, but ultimately more impactful implication that this is a man who knows he is dealing with something that will likely kill him, and feels fear, but does his duty anyway.

Not only does this whole sequence with Misha and Vasily effectively introduce the role graphite plays in the narrative, but along with the vague but foreboding discussion of graphite later in the episode (plant worker Sitnikov worriedly mentions seeing graphite among the rubble; deputy-chief engineer Dyatlov vehemently denies the possibility), it sparks curiosity about graphite. It gives the viewer significant motivation to care about the graphite lesson Valery Legasov will deliver in the next episode. Instead of being a standard info dump, “here’s some exposition for you folks” type of lesson, it’s an answer to the burning question of “what the hell is going on with graphite?” that the premiere goes to considerable lengths to establish. This is just one example of Chernobyl‘s consistent, careful integration of scientific information into the narrative.

Now, this is the part where a naysayer might say, “but I read something on the internet that said that Chernobyl lied about __________.” Sure, there are plenty of things, both in terms of scientific fact and historical fact, that the miniseries simplifies, omits, or, for lack of a better term, fudges. And that brings us to a very important point: Chernobyl is a docudrama.

It’s just one of the basic rules of the universe that when a docudrama comes out, there will be at least a few incensed commentators who do not seem to comprehend that “docudrama” is not synonymous with “documentary”—or, perhaps, feel very strongly that it should be. And yes, the truth of it is that docudramas and biopics overwhelmingly emphasize their “educational”/”based on a true story” nature to bestow themselves with a certain sort of gravitas and legitimacy that may or may not be warranted. My stance on the situation is that artistic license (within reason) is entirely warranted in docudramas in the name of narrative coherence, concision, and even just telling a damn good story, so long as “artistic license” isn’t being used as a code word for “laziness,” which it often is. Mazin’s episode-by-episode “making of” podcast (which, by the way, is well worth listening to) makes it very clear that, in the case of Chernobyl, divergences from the historical record were made both knowingly and with considerable thought.

Another element that makes Chernobyl‘s use of dramatic license particularly commendable is transparency. At the start of the first episode of the Chernobyl podcast, Mazin says of his desire to make the podcast that, “the [reason] that was most important to me from the jump was a chance to set the record straight about what we do that is very accurate to history, what we do that is a little bit sideways to it, and what we do to compress or change—in no small part because the show is essentially about the cost of lies, the danger of narrative, and I didn’t want us to miss a chance for transparency if we had one.” Mazin’s approach here isn’t entirely unheard of, but his forwardness in addressing his process, use of artistic license, and transparency regarding his thought processes in making these decisions is something we haven’t quite seen before, at least not in any project reaching such a large audience. It’s an acknowledgment of accountability and a wonderful example of responsible storytelling. Because, as Mazin suggests, “docudramas” can conceal the truth just as much as they educate, because ultimately audience-friendly docudramas tend to reach far wider audiences than more comprehensive documentaries or written accounts. As such, they often tend to become the dominant version of events within cultural memory.

Let’s go back one last time to The Beginning or the End. As is standard for docudramas, the idea that the film was informative, fact-based, and heavily researched were pitched as its key selling points. And it is true, the filmmakers consulted a number of scientific and military officials in the making of the film. However, reading accounts of these negotiations—ironically enough, a far more compelling narrative than the actual film—they were not first and foremost about fact-checking and setting the record straight. Instead, the “research” that went into the film is far better described as a complex web of negotiations regarding permissions. MGM had no interest in stepping on toes, and the atomic bomb was, of course, a hot topic.

As such, the narrative of The Beginning or the End was shaped by who did and did not want their likeness being used—and, in the case of those willing to have their likeness represented (and yes, in case you were wondering, at least some were paid considerable sums for this permission), how they would like to be represented. Even beyond that, the film was made for American audiences, and, while wanting to present both the risks and potential rewards of nuclear energy, it had no interest in making Americans feel any remorse over the US involvement in the war, including the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. And to that end, the film presents a blatant lie about World War II that still refuses to die to date—the idea that the U.S. army dropped “warning leaflets” over those cities more than a week in advance of the bombings, a fabrication the film brings up not once, but twice. While the agenda behind the various decisions MGM made with The Beginning or the End can be pieced together easily enough if you do a fair amount of digging, the digging is very much required and reveals a truth very different from the methodology claimed by the film’s marketing and opening title sequence.

By every measurement, Chernobyl is an impeccably crafted series—well written, impeccably shot, superbly acted, the works. But perhaps its most remarkable quality is its awareness of its own power as a mainstream, fictionalized account of historical events and how Mazin holds himself and the series accountable in this regard. As the latest nuclear docudrama, Chernobyl could not be further removed from its earliest predecessor, and that’s something we can and should celebrate.

Ciara Wardlow: @ciara_wardlow Human being who writes about movies and other things. Sometimes I try to be funny on Twitter.