It’s a weird fact of the third world living with the first world and global interests that one must catch a cinematic, grand and masterful TV show by HBO, on a streaming platform (Hotstar) in India. Even so, Chernobyl, the latest HBO mini-series from writer Craig Mazin is worth every bit of effort. Aside from the cool fact that it has an eye-popping, record-setting 9.7 Rating on IMDB by fans and aficionados, Chernobyl imprints itself into your consciousness, making an impact beyond just weekend stress viewing.
No doubt that these are the halcyon days of Television and series all over again, with streaming platforms opening up revenue streams and funding support. But mediocrity does float around massively as volumes of shows enter the atmosphere. For instance, Renee Zellweger toplined What/If is so bad it’s almost good; and so are quite a few others featuring retired or semi-retired Hollywood stars.
Chernobyl beats each one of these neatly, standing up on sheer merit. It tells a story that the world must hear, one that has gone missing from history and current affairs lessons from across the world. In 1986, Chernobyl 4, an RBMK nuclear reactor in the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic blew up. For a world forever tethering on the brink of another devastating war and living under the shadow of the Cold War, the unthinkable had happened. Whilst the millennial generation might not be aware of what the USSR meant to this world, it’s worthwhile to know that by the 80s, this vast, restrictive and secretive Communist nation lived under a veil of state control that was so tight and dystopian, that the state’s initial reaction to a nuclear disaster was nothing. Even if the entire world could be affected and most of Western Europe would fill up with the dead and dying, the USSR didn’t evacuate Pripyat, a town 3 kilometres away from Chernobyl where the incident happened.
The series is produced and created with an impeccable eye to detail, right down to phones, shirt collars, the furniture and colour tones of the Soviet era. It has been shot with precision and with a complete absence of hyperbole. Cinematic in its tone and voice, Chernobyl lets visuals do most of the loud screaming and agonising talk. When bodies of firemen and employees at the plant, who faced the first brunt of radiation, melt and turn masses of flesh after suffering unimaginable pain, these are packed and rolled up in cloth, sealed in metal coffins and buried underground, Concrete is poured over the coffins, ensuring that their radioactive mortal remains have no contact with the earth and any forms of life. The process behind this is done with no dialogues and tenuous background score alone, and this is just one of the scenes. This focus, on letting the disaster’s maximum impact dawn upon audiences without any conversation beyond the strictly necessary, makes Chernobyl all the more powerful. And it leads to the most logical question- who and how put a stop to the planet threatening consequences of this nuclear disaster?
This bit is the most beautiful aspect of the series. Craig Mazin, it’s writer and creator, is best known for writing Hangover 2 and the Huntsman. Perhaps he was the last person expected to throw up a masterpiece like this series, but HBO, the network believed in his vision and backed him through 4 years of solid research, seeking real testimonials and painstaking writing. Mazin compressed what was originally perceived as a six-episode show to a five episode series. To him, going through countless testimonials, newspaper reports, and recent books on the incident threw up stories of the incredible courage of common folk from the Soviet Union. Unnamed and unsung, these men and women- be it the liquidators from the Red Army, the miners digging underneath an exposed reactor, hospital staff, the minister in charge, and the scientists- everyone knew that the consequences of steady doses of radiation meant certain death and illness. They went ahead with their tasks despite this. To them, the Cold War or a battle of political ideologies didn’t matter. Saving Europe and protecting Eurasia became a top priority. It also represented a cleanup operation at a mind-boggling scale, where a 100 square kilometres of forests, flora, and fauna were razed and the ground dug up.
Despite best efforts, a UN report on effects of Chernobyl radiation puts the blame of hundreds of thousands of cancer cases in this region down to exposure, and consumption of milk and milk products from radiation exposed cattle. Yet, in terms of human scale, what was achieved as containment has to be credited to the cruel, disciplined and mass replicated effort of the USSR.
A conversation on this series does not become complete without referring to its actors. Stellan Skarsgard, Jared Harris, Emily Watson and David Dencik amongst others in a huge British cast of performers stand out for playing their parts with sublime control and a glint in their eyes. The show has stayed away from mimicking Soviet accents and stuck to native British accents, simply because it’s powerful and compelling story didn’t need such accoutrements.
An article on meduza.com reports that a journalist from America stumbled upon the truth of his grandfather, who was a liquidator at Chernobyl. The octogenarian refuses to watch the show beyond 2 episodes as he is disturbed by it’s closeness to his memory of the situation on the ground. There could rarely be greater testimony of this series’ achievement.Read More