I just finished watching HBO’s remarkable 5-part miniseries Chernobyl, a dramatization of the explosion of the Chernobyl nuclear plant and the attempts to mitigate the damage. It is a grim series but an outstanding one. Some of the best stuff HBO has shown and that’s saying something.
Here’s a few thoughts.
- Acting, directing and writing are all great. I expect Chernobyl to do well at award season. It deserves to. Even as the quality of films falls, we are in a golden age of television. There’s almost too much good content to keep up with.
- Each episode is accompanied by a Chernobyl podcast where writer, creator and executive producer Craig Mazin discusses the episode. These are well worth your time. Mazin was previously known for his comedies (the Hangover sequels) and people are surprised he had this in him. I’m not. First of all, comedy is harder to do than drama. But second, the podcast makes clear that this was his passion, his obsession. This was the story he wanted to tell. And that shows.
- The series takes certain liberties with history. For example, Emily Watson’s Khomyuk is a composite character representing dozens of scientists. None of this is a real problem.
- As a scientist, I have always been intensely curious about what exactly caused the Chernobyl explosion. I’d read enough to have a crude grasp. The series does an excellent job of explaining the extremely technical details of what went wrong that fateful night using the exact paradigm I would use if explaining it to an introductory physics class. I should note that there is still some scientific debate over exactly what happened. But the series presents what is generally agreed upon as the most likely scenario.
- All five episodes are great. But they all have a different emphasis and tone. Episode One, for example, plays like a horror movie, conveying the full terror and confusion over what has happened. The sight of Chernobyl 4’s open core is one of the most frightening things I’ve seen on television.
- I have a deep interest in the music used in television and movies. Hildur Guðnadóttir’s score for Chernobyl is minimalistic, being composed from ambient sounds recorded in a decommissioned nuclear plant in Lithuania. It has few themes, no cues to underscore the drama. It’s a unsettling growling menacing presence, like the radiation that is slowly (or not so slowly) killing everyone. It works perfectly.
- One of the most talked-about aspects of the series is the incredible work put into the details of 1986 Ukraine. There have been numerous posts and Twitter threads about how accurate everything is, down to the trash buckets. This isn’t just a nice detail. I think it’s a key part of why the series is so good, providing a verisimilitude to the proceedings and helping the actors live their parts. There is a growing emphasis on this in television (e.g., Stranger Things) and I welcome it.
- Chernobyl is not anti-nuclear, as Mazin has clarified a number of times. It’s indictment is aimed at the system of the Soviet Union. And more generally at how lies and deceptions can lead to tragedy.
- One of the wonderful things about the series is that while it indicts the Soviet system, it does not indict the Soviet people. Time after time, people are asked to risk their lives for the greater good and … the just do. It’s not hyped up as heroic; it’s not underscored by soaring music; many of the volunteers aren’t even named. It just … is. Much like it was in real life. There were thousands of people who kept the disaster from getting much much much worse. Most of them didn’t think of themselves as heroes; they were just doing what needed to be done. And that quiet everyday courage is where the series draws a lot of its strength from.
- In case the idea of Chernobyl turns you off nuclear power, consider this: when you account for the effects of extracting and burning fossil fuels upon both the environment and human health, it’s like having a Chernobyl every year. Maybe every day, depending on what numbers you believe. It doesn’t seem that way because when a power plant explodes, it is a historical event. But the slow quiet damage done by fossil fuels — the ravishing of the countryside; the pollution-induced respiratory illness; the spread of pollutants like mercury (and, for a long time, lead) — doesn’t make headlines. That’s even without taking into account global warming. Nuclear power, even in its current form, has probably saved about two million lives by replacing fossil fuels. All policies are trade-offs. And nuclear, even with Chernobyl, is the least bad trade-off when it comes to energy.