TV review'I didn't know how bad it got'

Why HBO’s miniseries ‘Chernobyl’ should be required watching

While surprising that the historical drama comes from the same guy who made the ‘Hangover’ sequels, it contains chilling facts, rich characterization, and a dire warning for today

  • A still from the new HBO miniseries, 'Chernobyl.' (Liam Daniel/HBO)
    A still from the new HBO miniseries, 'Chernobyl.' (Liam Daniel/HBO)
  • A still of a 'liquidator' from the new HBO miniseries 'Chernobyl.' (Liam Daniel/HBO)
    A still of a 'liquidator' from the new HBO miniseries 'Chernobyl.' (Liam Daniel/HBO)
  • A still from the new HBO miniseries, 'Chernobyl.' (Liam Daniel/HBO)
    A still from the new HBO miniseries, 'Chernobyl.' (Liam Daniel/HBO)
  • A still from the new HBO miniseries, 'Chernobyl.' (Liam Daniel/HBO)
    A still from the new HBO miniseries, 'Chernobyl.' (Liam Daniel/HBO)
  • A still from the new HBO miniseries, 'Chernobyl.' (Liam Daniel/HBO)
    A still from the new HBO miniseries, 'Chernobyl.' (Liam Daniel/HBO)
  • A still of the 'liquidators' from the new HBO miniseries 'Chernobyl.' (Liam Daniel/HBO)
    A still of the 'liquidators' from the new HBO miniseries 'Chernobyl.' (Liam Daniel/HBO)
  • A still from the new HBO miniseries, 'Chernobyl.' (Liam Daniel/HBO)
    A still from the new HBO miniseries, 'Chernobyl.' (Liam Daniel/HBO)

NEW YORK — “You have to watch ‘Chernobyl,’” everyone said. “I don’t want to watch ‘Chernobyl,’” I replied. I’m cripplingly distrustful of governments as it is and I really dislike seeing people get sick and have their hair fall out. Plus, come on, how good could it really be if it was written and produced by the guy who wrote the sequels to the “Hangover” movies?

But now I’ve seen all six hours of the HBO miniseries and, like everyone else, I’m telling you: “You have to watch ‘Chernobyl.’”

I’m old enough to remember when the Soviet nuclear power plant just south of the Belarusian border in Ukraine had its “accident,” but I was young enough at the time to have been really stupid about it. I was an ’80s kid and convinced “the Commies” were gonna nuke us at any minute, sizzling us into vapor before we had time to realize what was happening. I’m ashamed to say this now, but when word of Chernobyl spread at school, the consensus was basically “Good, better they get nuked now before they can all kill us.”

Then it seemed as if things weren’t that bad, it was only a minor accident, not too many people had died. Comparisons were made to the incident at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania; a “close call.” I went on with my childhood and, as I got older, thought of the incident at Chernobyl more of a costly public relations issue for the USSR than an actual health crisis.

I was, in short, an idiot.

You have to watch “Chernobyl.”

I didn’t know how bad it got. I didn’t know how many people got sick, how much disruption the accident brought to the region and just how close we came to absolute, life-changing horror for everyone. I didn’t know anything about the clean-up crew, the “liquidators,” many of whom later emigrated to Israel, who, in some cases lured by lies, in other cases due to bravery, prevented a planet-wide catastrophe.

The series, an unsettling nightmare of dingy grays and off-blues, poorly lit rooms and chipped tiles, stars Jared Harris as Valery Legasov, a noble scientist in thick glasses who is brought in to advise in the immediate aftermath. Stellan Skarsgård is Boris Shcherbina, a party hack who, over time, grows more righteous in the face of government duplicity. Emily Watson plays a composite character named Ulana Khomyuk, based on several actual scientists who raced toward the scene of the accident knowing the dangers they’d find.

The troika are faced with three emergencies. First, how to put out a fire that is so hot it actually changes the color of the air. Then, they realize they only have a short window in which to drain water from beneath the reactor core’s blazing remnants before a steam explosion creates a chain reaction that would irradiate most of Eastern Europe, killing an incalculable amount of people. (Even though I know this didn’t happen, I sat their on my couch with my heart thumping wildly when I learned how close it came. I hit pause for a few minutes and got a drink.) Then, before the still hot core could melt down into the drain water, an enormous ditch needed to be dug, by hand, to prevent poisonous leakage into the Pripyat River, which leads to the Dnieper River and, from there, livestock and farmland and drinking water for hundreds of millions of people.

A still of a ‘liquidator’ from the new HBO miniseries ‘Chernobyl.’ (Liam Daniel/HBO)

Wait, we’re not done. The heavily radioactive graphite strewn about the top of the Chernobyl facility needed to be shoved back in the gaping hole to be entombed by lead and boron, but you can’t just do this with a regular snow plow. Even robots from Germany fry when they get too close, so Mikhail Gorbachev sends in the army to run in shifts. It’s like trench footage from a World War I, only it’s of young men shoveling rocks. Director Johan Renck proves that any activity can be made terrifying if shot the right way.

“Chernobyl” is gripping filmmaking, but also does a great job at angering up the blood. It’s not being shown in theaters, so you’ll have the opportunity to shout at the television set in the comfort of your own home. What’s most upsetting is just how preventable the accident was.

As Craig Mazin’s five chapter miniseries details, there were a few issues colliding that led to the explosion in April 1986.

The fault lied with foolishness and mismanagement on both a macro and micro level. In the bigger picture there were Soviet cost-cutting measures, no doubt inspired by the need to “keep up” during the Cold War. This meant ignoring certain safety protocols found in nuclear power facilities in the West.

A still from the new HBO miniseries, ‘Chernobyl.’ (Liam Daniel/HBO)

Additionally, there was the typical paranoid obsession with state secrets. In short, no one — not even the safety workers at the plants — knew that the emergency fail safe cooling rods were tipped with graphite.

This probably means nothing to you (it certainly meant nothing to me before watching “Chernobyl”) but I now understand that this is a very important piece of knowledge. Yet it was one that had been redacted from reports because it suggested a design flaw under a very unlikely set of circumstances. (And, as you can guess, these circumstances are exactly what happened in Chernobyl.) But the State determined it was just better to deny any issue existed, because there’s no such thing as a design flaw on a Soviet nuclear reactor and the State is always right.

On a smaller scale you had three bureaucrat dummies looking to cover their own asses about a safety test they lied about having previously done, forcing them to sneak it in after the fact. Yes, because life is a cosmic joke, the instigating incident at Chernobyl was a safety test. You couldn’t write this stuff.

The three administrators were far more interested in career advancement than in doing things in a correct and professional way, and they would have gotten away with it, too, if it weren’t for that weird series of particular circumstances that, oh, very nearly destroyed planet Earth.

A still from the new HBO miniseries, ‘Chernobyl.’ (Liam Daniel/HBO)

But the show wouldn’t be so moving if it were just about facts or the nature of incompetence. It’s about characters. And here’s where writer Craig Mazin really earns his kudos.

Mazin is a few years older than me and grew up, as I did, in the very Jewish part of Monmouth County, New Jersey. He says he’s been thinking about Chernobyl since he was 15, but was surprised that, until recently, he never quite understood why what happened happened. He’s spent years crafting this project, making sure the facts are straight down to what brand of cigarette people smoked.

Everything in Mazin’s career until now (apart from his jokey tweets at the expense of his ex-college roommate, Senator Ted Cruz) has been, and I will use the most forgiving term I can think of, expendable. “The Hangover” is hardly a masterpiece, but “The Hangover II” and “The Hangover III” (there was a third?) are absolute garbage. Mazin wrote them both, in addition to complete crap like “Superhero Movie” (he actually directed that one, too) and “Identity Thief.” But Mazin stayed in the Hollywood system, was friends with everyone, earned studios lots of money with his lowbrow work and even co-hosted a popular insider podcast called “Scriptnotes.” He was, you could say, something of a party apparatchik.

A still from the new HBO miniseries, ‘Chernobyl.’ (Liam Daniel/HBO)

Like Skarsgård’s character, the enormity of “Chernobyl” brought something extraordinary out of him. Whatever he does next will be considered seriously and treated with respect.

There isn’t much specifically about the Jewish experience in Mazin’s teleplay, but there are some Jewish electrons spinning around its nucleus. Without giving too much away, there is something of a reveal at the end, when one of the characters we thought was virtuous and did not play political games has a skeleton or two emerge from their closet. When in a position of power, this character denied promotions to Jewish scientists to curry favor with Communist higher ups. (The percentage of Jews in Soviet sciences and higher education, while always proportionally high, took a noticeable dip starting in 1965.)

Additionally, there is the area of Chernobyl itself, given something of a eulogy prior to the creation of the 1,000 square mile exclusion zone that exists to this day. The Soviet Ukrainians who lived there, Skarsgård says, as his lungs already marinate in radiation exposure, knew that they were on blood-soaked soil. Before the Polish-Soviet war of 1919 it was mainly Poles that lived there. But before that is was Jews who were removed by pogroms. Yet the new inhabitants always think “this could never happen to me.”

A still from the new HBO miniseries ‘Chernobyl.’ (Liam Daniel/HBO)

“Chernobyl” is the kind of rich drama that sends you diving to Wikipedia to learn more facts, but also sets your mind reeling, looking for deeper meaning. Yes, it is historical, but I think you’d need to be kidding yourself not to read it as an allegory for our looming environmental crisis. When every scientist is doing jumping jacks shouting “Disaster! It’s coming! Wake up!” as our politicians prevaricate over economics or distract with nationalist propaganda, the comparison is practically one-to-one.

Though Chernobyl’s ill-effects were far greater than I ever realized, the planet did survive. Will we get another chance?

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