Disaster management: on the HBO series, Chernobyl

Why the five-part series, Chernobyl, is the most astounding show you’ll watch this year

June 07, 2019 12:38 pm | Updated June 08, 2019 02:03 pm IST

Chernobyl , the new limited series about the eponymous nuclear plant where a reactor blew up in 1986, is a war drama without intending to be one.

The greatest war stories aren’t about the battle itself, or the nature of enmity that leads to strife, or what a victory achieves (or even what a victory is), but about the men and women whose lives remain changed forever. Some typical war drama tropes include the build up of, say, a character whose death is imminent, or a family member who waits on the sidelines. Or the general who must take a decision that will seal the fate of his troops even as he begins to question the pointlessness of war.

It would be far-fetched to assume that creator and writer Craig Mazin thought of similar analogies while crafting the five-part series, but he delves into themes associated with such sagas: sacrifice, loss, valour, destruction, hope. Why do a few powerful people take decisions that impact the lives of millions? Is nationalism above humanity? To what extent would humans go to save their own kind? Mazin touches upon similar universal themes.

Chernobyl is compelling and devastating in equal parts, like getting on a dangerous theme park ride that’s bound to result in some nausea and headache, but the adrenaline is well worth the discomfort. While the events leading up to, and following, the Chernobyl disaster by themselves make up for engaging plot points, Mazin harnesses the truth to construct a portrait of humanity. The drama is either horrific or awe-inspiring or heartbreaking, and many times all those things together, which is a testament to Mazin’s complete grasp over the subject.

Director Johan Renck has his work cut out for him: the material is astounding to begin with, and he keeps proceedings tight with marvellous assistance from cinematographer Jacob Ihre and Hildur Guðnadóttir’s pulsating score. Mazin and Renck employ an army of efficient actors — from the principal cast to the many watchable cameos.

There are few performers as effective as Jared Harris and Stellan Skarsgård on any given day, and the two actors scorch up the screen with their chemistry. Harris plays the nuclear scientist who first rings alarm bells about the effects of the radiation due to the accident, with Skarsgård as a difficult but well-intentioned ally; a government agent who must keep mother Russia’s interests in mind as he sifts through the carnage. Their scenes are made up of several quotable lines and searing interactions, as they debate over how they must salvage an unfixable situation. The terrific Emily Watson shows up as the moral centre of the story — a woman whose only drive is to uncover the truth behind the horrific incident.

Chernobyl is the TV event we didn’t see coming. It will incite discussion around its narrative abilities, surely, but also act as a televised reminder of the destruction possible when humans themselves can’t fathom the power of their inventions.

Chernobyl is now streaming on Hotstar.

This column helps you navigate online (and offline) television, a world of endless options.

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