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CHERNOBYL : In The League of “Schindler’s List” for Television

To call “Chernobyl” ( pronounced as “Churn- Obil “) as a disaster tragedy TV show will be a grave injustice. The show is possibly one of the few TV shows which are brutally honest and wears its political tonality on its sleeve. In one of the scenes in the show, the troubleshooter duo of Boris Schirbina and Valery Legasov who have been made investigators and “problem” solvers by the USSR government are about to meet the leader of a mining crew who would be entrusted to dig around a highly radioactive plant premise which might be their death warrant. In this situation Legasov asks, “Should we tell them the truth of the situation, is it safe?“ and Schirbina responds, “These people operate in the dark….they see everything”.

“Chernobyl” is a mini series produced by HBO and is based on the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant disaster occurred in the then USSR in April 1986. The show talks in detail about the disaster, its effect on people living around the area, government officials and a host of other stakeholders. In fact, this incident which took an estimated 4000 lives has been considered as an inflection point in the history of the USSR and is considered as one of the major reasons for the downfall of the Soviet Union.

The series is written by Craig Mazin and directed by Johan Renck. It stars Jared Harris, Emily Watson, Stellan Skarsgard and a host of European and American actors. It has 5 episodes of over 1 hour each.

What is “Chernobyl”, the TV series all about?

“Chernobyl” talks about a Nuclear blast incident which occurred at a nuclear reactor facility of the same name in the city of Pripyat, now a part of modern day Ukraine. The plant’s nuclear reactor explodes due to some malfunctioning in a test which was to be conducted by the Chernobyl crew in April 1986. The rest of the show highlights the aftermath of the blast and how humanity reacted to it. There are multiple perspectives at work here like the crew and manpower at the plant, the investigating team sent from the Russian government, the families of the affected crew and others, the impact of the radiation on humans, animals and all creatures in the nearby area, the toothless hierarchy of the Kremlin, the KGB’s intervention with the investigating team and so on. But the main conflict in the show is centered between the civil society which is trying to bring normalcy and humanity in these difficult times and the rigid, ruthless army of the bureaucracy which will never agree or admit the extent of the Chernobyl genocide. There is a concerted effort to show politics and its ugly head at crucial moments. In between these, the main cast of Valery Legasov (Jared Harris) who is handling the investigation of the blast and is tasked with resolving the crisis and Boris Schirbina( Stellan Skarsgard) the minister of Fuel and Energy call the shots. In addition they are also helped by Ulana Khomyuk (Emily Watson) who is a nuclear physicist and is tasked by Legasov to interview each and every plant worker and make a report on what exactly happened on the night of the explosion. Also, there are moving stories about various plant workers, managers and how their families were affected by radiation and its death inducing menace. The show also looks at the very depth and stature of the Kremlin and its associated organizations/ministries.

“Chernobyl” and the Communist Regime of USSR

One of the most fascinating things shown in the TV series is the cold, non emotional perspective of the leaders of the USSR. In one of the scenes when Boris and Valery are being flown into the affected area, Boris orders the pilot to go over the smoke of the facility and get an aerial without realizing its deadly consequence just because Boris as a poster child of the government refuses to believe that there is anything wrong with the system. Its then that Valery shouts at the pilot “ If you go over this plant, then you will be begging for a bullet tomorrow morning”.

In yet another scene, Boris and Legasov are asking for 4 volunteers who can go deep in the underground area of the facility and empty water from the water tanks as there is a threat of a lava to mix with water. To make matters hopeless is when Boris almost “orders” the workers to do this life taking job for a mere 400 Roubles given to their families. People agree and then volunteer for the sake of saving humanity. It’s these subservient yet considerate population which averted a major catastrophe as the water supplies were extending to 200 kms area.

At the end of the series when Legasov speaks against the establishment, the KGB chief calls him a “chicken” of sorts. The extent of madness in the power circles goes to such a level that the Kremlin doesn’t acknowledge the disaster and its extent to the world until nearing countries like Germany and Sweden detect radiation levels in the atmosphere. In yet another scathing indictment, Boris reveals how in Frankfurt children are not being allowed to go out to schools due to radiation while staring at local kids playing in basketball court while not very far from the Chernobyl plant!

The Humanity in “Chernobyl”

Valery Legasov is a man with a mission but is under pressure from the USSR establishment at every step of the way. He is told that “everything is under control”. But he always comes back with various facts and analysis to counter it. In reality, Legasov committed suicide just after 2 years of the incident as he was under “exile” in his own office. But before dying he recorded audio tapes which categorically talk of the value of “lies” in the scheme of things at the Kremlin.

But for all these cold blooded officers, the local population of Pripyat and the Chernobyl workers’ families offer the viewer a peep into humanity like no other show. Take the case of Ludmyllla who is the wife of a fireman who went to the plant after the blast and dies due to radiation. Ludmylla never loses hope and while she is pregnant never goes far away from her husband who is contaminated. In reality, she had a miscarriage and was told that she could never bear a child. But she proved them wrong and gave birth to a boy later in her life.

Andrei Glukhov who leads the mining effort at the plant and is imported from another facility is told that he will not get fans as the radioactive dust will contaminate the crew. His team accepts the challenge and starts working “nude” as they don’t have fans. They end up delivering what they are assigned.

Its these snippets of resilience and positivity in a deeply autocratic regime that engages the viewer in a big way.

The Look and Feel of “Chernobyl”

The Director Of Photography Jakob IIhre uses blue and green tones in the show. The color grading is just outstanding. By using green and blue color combinations, he is able to create a morose and yet engaging landscape of the city and the country.

The costume designing is also very accurate. From the perspective of production design, there are no optics at all. One doesn’t see an actual explosion until the very end of the show.

The job Editor Jinx Godfrey does superb work as the show which is 330 minutes in length does not look or feel like a drab as it is only about one incident.

Actual locations in Lithuania have been used to portray the town of Pripyat.

The music score of Chernobyl by Hildur Guonadottir uses sounds from an actual nuclear plant to create a haunting touch to the music of the show. Hildur is an immensely talented female composer from Iceland.


Jared Harris as Legasov packs a punch. He looks amazing and emotes well in all situations he is confronted with. Stellan Skarsgard as Boris Schirbina plays the quintessential politician who turns a new leaf when he encounters the gravity of the situation he has to deal with.

Emily Watson as Ulana Khomyuk acts as an investigator and is the sound of reason in the male dominated world of Kremlin. I was particularly impressed by Paul Ritter who plays Engineer Dyatlov who was heading the team at the plant on the day of the disaster. His arrogance and ignorance irritates you.

Final Verdict

I think a 9 out of 10 is a done deal for “Chernobyl”. This has to be amongst the top 5 TV shows I have seen in a long time. Its masterful and brilliant. You have to see this!

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