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“I’m not afraid of God. I’m afraid of man!”- Svetlana Alexievich, Voices from Chernobyl
Alternatives to the norm can at times present brilliance which may be overlooked. Whilst the last in the series of Game of Thrones dominates television viewing and social media speculation, in the same spectrum this week is a new mini-series. Again produced for HBO, it’s just as riveting – the dramatised story of Chernobyl. A tale of one of the worst man-made disasters of the modern era, it depicts the ecological dangers associated with uncontrollable energy.
On April 26 1986, the number-four reactor of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in Northern Ukraine exploded during a routine safety test. The test was set to imitate a station blackout. Instead through flaws within the reactor and a substandard checklist, reactor four suffered a power increase which led to explosions. This in-turn caused radioactive isotopes to be shot into the atmosphere with the fires burning for weeks afterwards. The Chernobyl disaster sent shockwaves around the world, becoming a moment in time similar to that of the JFK assassination or 9/11. Everyone can remember where they were when it happened.
The fear and uncertainty that followed was on a scale not seen since the last World War. It happened at a time when Russian and American relations were still at a low. There was also always an uncertainty as to how much Russia was allowing be made public about the incident.
With Chernobyl, audiences who remember the event will be transported back in time. That feeling of despair the incident evoked in people is exactly what writer Craig Mazin (Identity Thief) and director Johan Renck (Downloading Nancy) have skillfully captured. Chernobyl is fearless and realistically gritty. It brings to life the explosion and aftermath with an authenticity that is sometimes lost with other attempted, non-fiction tellings.
Chernobyl begins two years after the disaster. We find physicist, Valery Legasov (Jared Harris) – the man leading the investigation into the incident – hidden away in his flat. In between chain smoking, he is recording onto cassette tapes the details of the investigation, all the while under the watch of KGB officers. When the recordings are completed he discreetly leaves his dilapidated flat to stash the tapes, returning only to kill himself.
It is then the episode travels back to the scenes of the disaster. We then follow pregnant mother Lyudmilla Ignatenko (Irish actress Jessie Buckley), who becomes shaken by the explosion from the plant three-kilometers away. Her firefighter husband Vasily (The Terror’s Adam Nagaitis), is awoken from his sleep and called to serve at the plant.
This firefighter is central as Vasily Ignatenko will be one of the first to die from exposure and radiation poisoning. You see the devastation through his eyes as his colleagues are sent to their death by Chernobyl’s deputy chief Anatoly Dyatlov (Paul Ritter). Dyatlov is in denial about the cause of the explosion, when faced with the effect the toxic air is having on the remaining plant workers and rescuers. The deception, or refutation regarding the incident is evident here and becomes the underlying thread running through this series. From the outset, the truth of the Chernobyl disaster was played down, almost hidden. This is even though the disturbing scenes on the ground level told a completely different story.
The chaos and bravery of those at ground zero is perfectly portrayed. This runs in equal balance to scenes of officials, including politician Boris Shcherbina (Stellan Skarsgård), refusing to believe Legasov’s grave warnings. We cut from shots at the reactor where we see firefighters’ skin peeling from their bodies, to a sitting committee discussing the explosion. This is done stylishly, never halting the flow of tension.
The dread is so overwhelming, it mirrors Cold War nuclear fears. Similar to nowadays however, the scientists portrayed in Chernobyl are the ones ringing the alarm bells while, the politicians, including here Ulyana Khomyu (Emily Watson), are the ones playing down any danger. With recent discussions surrounding climate change, it seems the lessons of the incident have not been learned.