HBO’s “Chernobyl” (2019) is … flawless, as far as I can tell. I can’t name a single criticism I have of its writing, directing or performances. It is among the best miniseries I’ve ever seen, and I don’t hesitate to rate it a 10 out of 10.
I can’t comment with any credibility about its historical accuracy, of course. I know that the character of Ulana Khomyuk (wonderfully played by Emily Watson) was a composite meant to represent a number of scientists responding to the world-changing 1986 nuclear disaster; HBO notes this in its closing notes of the last episode. But, to an average viewer like myself, the show certainly felt accurate — not once did I pause to remember that I was watching a TV show, and not getting a real-life glimpse into the closing days of the Soviet Union. There is an immersive authenticity to “Chernobyl” that underscores every second of the horrors it depicts.
The entire five-episode program is an exercise in balance. Screenwriter Craig Mazin deftly portrays terrifying events (including the effects of radiation exposure on average people nearby) without sensationalizing them.
The show does a masterful job of explaining the necessary technical information without overwhelming the viewer. I typically have some trouble following material like this, and I understood most of it. (The relationship between Jared Harris’ character and Stellan Skarsgard’s character helps quite a bit. The former is a leading nuclear scientist who explains things in layman’s terms for the latter, who is a high-ranking Soviet official supervising the disaster response.)
And the script is ultimately quite moving, without once approaching the threshold of melodrama. The character interaction and dialogue is a lot more restrained than you might expect for this subject matter. But I was surprised at the sense of sympathy for the Russian people that this engendered for me, and at the dismay I felt for the visceral technological horrors they faced. (The show admirably highlights how average Russians were very much like Americans in 1986, albeit under an oppressive government. It was ironic how some characters ominously referred to “The West,” with the same apprehension as people here in the 1980’s referred to “the Russians.”)
It’s a nuanced script too. By the times the miniseries concludes, the viewer comes to understand that the putative “bad guys” are scapegoats who are not fully and solely responsible for the disaster. (And the character arc for Skarsgard’s bureaucrat is a compelling redemption.) More troubling, though, is that some of the “good guys” we are rooting for are also not completely inculpable.
For me, though, Chernobyl succeeded mostly because of Harris and Skarsgard. They were both phenomenally good — perfect, in fact. They are accomplished actors who have the subtlety and restraint to play men from a stoical culture who must nonetheless have human reactions to tragedy.
I obviously recommend this.