The stated effects and information related to the Chernobyl disaster vary depending on what you read, with potential new facts still being discovered (since much of the relevant literature requires translation from Russian). Fundamentally, what is known is that in the early hours of April 26th, 1986, there was a destructive explosion at the nuclear power plant near the Soviet Ukrainian city of Chernobyl. This caused a fire, but more horrifyingly the local atmosphere began to turn radioactive, resulting in the evacuation of nearby cities and the alarm of Europe. The five-part miniseries Chernobyl not only sets out to recount the major events of disaster but also to give insight and explanations into why it transpired. The end result is a dramatisation that is both absorbing and deeply affecting.
The series opens at the precise time the explosion took place, 1:23:45, which is the title of the opening episode. A group of power plant workers panic, unaware of what has taken place. What follows is an array of answers and excuses that quickly escalate to the highest levels of the Soviet government, who must act fast and find solutions to many interlinked dilemmas and resolve how the explosion happened.
The whole production is grounded in realism, and there is no lapse in the horrors that unfold. It might be a difficult watch for some, but this gives Chernobyl real strength in displaying the ordeals that many people went through, even those who risked their lives to prevent consequences even more catastrophic.
It is clear from watching Chernobyl that much research went into the events and the time it took place. Every aspect related to the production design of the series looks believably authentic. Nothing within the costumes or set design appears out-of-place; even the decor in each scene is reminiscent of 1980s Soviet Union, and the choice to use an abandoned town and a similar decommissioned power station in Lithuania as real sets help immerse the audience further into the show.
The score by Hildur Guðnadóttir is captivating as well. The onset location sound recordings merge with restrained percussion and electronic droning, adding to the suspense. The sounds are haunting but do not overwhelm the action, instead accompanying it and reinforcing the tension and sense of dread.
Chernobyl possesses a large and talented ensemble cast, but thankfully nobody attempts a Russian accent. The leading characters, Valery Legasov (Mad Men’s Jared Harris) and Boris Scherbina (Stellan Skarsgård) try to find a way to contain the radiation spreading from Chernobyl and the nearby city of Pripyat, whilst Ulana Khomyuk (Emily Watson) attempts to discover how the nuclear explosion arose in the first place. All three give credible performances, along with much of the supporting cast which includes Jessie Buckley and Barry Keoghan.
Chernobyl is not the most comfortable watch, but it feels imperative that this true story is told genuinely and faithfully to those who suffered and sacrificed, as stated by its closing remarks. The fact that the plot details are relatively truthful, apart from one or two exaggerated elements, only makes Chernobyl more harrowing and gripping to watch.