Students of human nature will appreciate the fine-grain pessimism of the HBO mini-series Chernobyl. But it’s a lot to take — not just because of its unsparing account of the nuclear disaster in the former USSR and the inept official response, but because it’s impossible to watch without thinking of other catastrophes unfolding all around us, all seemingly just as impeded by bureaucratic inefficiency, tribal loyalty, and bad faith.
The five-part tale starts with a flash-forward to Valery Legasov (Jared Harris), an inorganic chemist and member of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR, narrating into a tape recorder. Legasov led the investigation into the disaster at the Chernobyl nuclear facility in the now-abandoned Ukrainian town of Pripyat. What few people outside the USSR knew was that as bad as things were bound to be, human stupidity and obstinance amplified them. The event itself officially lasted only a few days in April 1986 — design flaws and human error during a routine systems test led to a steam explosion and open-air graphite fire, which in turn released radioactive material into the air all over the USSR and parts of Western Europe — but continues to have long-term, devastating health effects.
The two main voices of conscience in this story are Legasov and nuclear physicist Ulana Khomyuk (Emily Watson), who serve the same function here as the Jack Lemmon character in the underrated 1979 nuclear-disaster film The China Syndrome (a movie that the makers of Chernobyl appear to have seen and admired, considering how many of its style cues are referenced, including the unobtrusive camerawork and resistance to dramatic music). Other characters start out seeming like foils but eventually soften a bit and start to pitch in once they realize the magnitude of what’s at stake. The most prominent of these is Boris Shcherbina (Stellan Skarsgård), then the deputy head of the Soviet government, who initially resents how Legasov countermands or questions his orders, but ultimately figures out that in situations like this, it’s better to defer to somebody who actually knows what they’re talking about. Shcherbina’s pivotal moment occurs when he and Legasov are in a helicopter over the site as the graphite fire is raging, and Shcherbina orders the helicopter to get closer, over Legasov’s protestations that they’ll all die instantly. The helicopter pilot refuses, an act of disobedience that saves the lives of everyone onboard. Another helicopter crew in the hot zone is not so lucky: We see the aircraft from a distance hovering in the center of a smoke plume, then falling from the sky like a wasp zapped with Raid.
More commonplace are scenes where characters demonstrate the common sense of that chopper pilot but are simply talked over, talked out of their concerns, or ordered to ignore a problem that they know will only get worse through negligence. After learning of the disaster, Khomyuk visits a regional apparatchik and inquires about safety measures, including stockpiles of iodine pills, only to be met with resentment and condescension; in his previous life, this man ran a shoe factory, but he’s got more power than this woman with science degrees, so he gets the final say. (On her way out, Khomyuk secretly gives a stash of iodine pills to the man’s secretary.)
Concerned experts quickly learn that the way to discuss what’s really happening is by using code words. At one point, Shcherbina asks Legasov to go outdoors before continuing a conversation because the building they’re in is almost certainly bugged. While they’re walking through a public park, they spot a couple that seems to be following them, but at a great enough distance that they can’t be sure. Shcherbina explains to Legasov that this is often the second step when surveillance efforts fail: If you can’t actually listen in on people, you make sure they know that they’re being watched. What makes this sort of thing galling as well as frightening is the realization that we’re seeing power reflexively protect and assert itself, regardless of what’s actually best for the state, including its leaders. Even when the world is falling apart, the people in control still want to instill fear, and force everyone to acknowledge who’s boss.
Co-produced by HBO and Sky U.K., Chernobyl is written by Craig Mazin (of the latter two Hangover movies, incredibly) and directed by Swedish music video–maker Johan Renck in mostly handheld shots with a mournful pewter sheen of morgue imagery. It’s filled with details that you may not know, all sad or horrifying. Some of these lessons are medical, telling you what radiation does to the body and the environment. Others are a philosophical gut-punch, reminding us that there’s no disaster that can’t be made worse through human pettiness.
Still other times Chernobyl is unexpectedly funny, in a gallows sort of way. The more bleakly absurd moments reminded me of a joke that a Russian friend told me back in the ’80s, when I asked her if there was such a thing as Soviet humor: “A man asks another man on a crowded Moscow bus, ‘Are you affiliated in any way with the Communist Party leadership, the Politburo, the KGB, or any arm of government?’ ‘No,’ the man replies. ‘Good. Now please get off my foot.’” The Chernobyl disaster, it seems, was made even more of a disaster because the state was too prideful and ignorant to allow experts to say, “Please get off my foot.” It’s hard to imagine a more despairing portrait of humanity’s continuing capacity to ruin itself than this account of a disaster that’s three decades old.
It may even be an argument in favor of the notion that certain stories are better served through the all-at-once model. I watched the whole story in one sitting, and I can picture other people doing the same after Chernobyl finishes its initial five-week run on Monday nights because the sheer horror and ridiculousness of the tale creates its own kind of attention vortex: the worst-case version of “And then what?” An apocalypse on the installment plan might be too much, too real, and too harsh, like voluntarily swallowing one gigantic and unimaginably bitter pill per week, even though you know it’s good for you.