Why HBO and Sky UK’s Chernobyl Represents a Milestone in Historical Storytelling

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As HBO and Sky UK’s miniseries achieves widespread critical acclaim, earning a score of 9.6/10 on IMDB, a score of 96% on Rotten Tomatoes, and a score of 83 on Metacritic, Chernobyl represents a colossal achievement in historical storytelling on television.

What is Chernobyl and Why Should I Be Watching It?

Chernobyl (2019) is a historical drama miniseries consisting of five episodes aired in May and June of 2019. The show focuses on the events immediately following the Chernobyl Nuclear Disaster of 26 April 1986. The disaster occurred after a fault in an RBMK nuclear reactor caused an explosion at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, resulting in an open-air reactor core fire, releasing airborne radioactive pollution into the surrounding area.

To this day, the Chernobyl Disaster represents one of the two most severe nuclear disasters in human history, with the other being the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster of March 2011. HBO and Sky UK’s five-part miniseries presents a somewhat-fictionalised retelling of the events following the explosion of 1986 and the sacrifices of the people involved in averting further man-made disaster.

Chernobyl: A Brief Review

Firstly, Chernobyl must be credited with its sensitive and emotionally complex handling of the human relationships that play out throughout the miniseries. The writing moves between interpersonal relationships with ease, following families, scientists, soldiers, workers, and government officials with a fluidity that can be incredibly difficult to execute effectively.

Johan Renck’s claustrophobic, ominously tense directing style complements the actor’s performances perfectly, creating a sense of urgency that never quite reaches a resolution. Jared Harris and Stellan Skarsgård’s performances as nuclear scientist Valery Legasov and Deputy Prime Minister Boris Shcherbina respectively are impeccable, moving from pragmatic problem-solvers through fear, apathy, and frustration with ease.

Another equally impressive performance comes from Jessie Buckley’s portrayal of Ludmilla Ignatenko, the wife of a firefighter whose life is turned upside down when her husband responds to reports of a fire at the power plant.

The filming locations in Lithuania and Ukraine give a sense of depth and scale to many of the scenes, as helicopters soar over empty tenement blocks, firemen struggle with the blistering reactor core fire, and soldiers roam the exclusion zone evacuating civilians. Many scenes are bleak, continuously tense, and powered by exceptional sound design leaving many viewers still hearing the ominous crackle of Geiger counters far beyond the final scenes.

Historical Television and the Dramatisation of History

Showrunners involved in the production of Chernobyl appear to have based their writing, filming, and production design on the need for sensitive historical accuracy. Indeed, the research conducted for the show appears extensive, with HBO’s website summary for Chernobyl outlining producer Craig Mazin’s use of ‘a wide variety of materials, including several books, government reports from inside and outside of the Soviet Union and first-person accounts.

He [also] spoke to nuclear scientists to learn how a reactor works and interviewed former Soviet citizens to gain a better sense of the culture in 1986. This reliance on source material, personal testimonies, and scientific accuracy belies a consideration for the voices of those personally involved in the event, impressive attention to historical detail, and a desire to tell the story in a sensitive and nuanced way.

Chernobyl asks important questions about the portrayal of disaster and human suffering when constructing historically-accurate but ultimately fictional portrayals of events in the past. Historical television inevitably lends itself to many canonical storytelling tricks: It is, after all, a medium for the entertainment of its consumers. Who are the heroes? Who is the villain? Where does the story reach its resolution? What lessons are learned and how are people changed?

How far and how accurately filmmakers can ever construct events of the past remains a hotly debated topic, especially in relation to emotionally contentious events such as this. Critics might argue that, inevitably, the writing process for these historical shows attempts to capture but ultimately removes the element of chaos and unpredictability present at the time of the disaster. The story of Chernobyl unfolded in a way that would not have been predictable to its historical actors at the time and it is with the benefit of hindsight that such a story is constructed for viewers in the present day.

Similarly, critics might also question the ethical considerations of a television series that explores these themes of disaster and death. Recent news stories regarding the ethical implications of dark tourism, including recent reports on BBC news about the rise of ‘Chernobyl Selfies’ on social media sites resulting in a warning from the show’s writer and producer Craig Mazin, brings debate to the importance of historical accuracy vs. the popular attention that such a show attracts.

By indulging in televisual recreations of disasters, some might argue that without sensitive handling of the source material, a show opens itself up to delighting and indulging the viewer with human misery and human suffering. It is here that Chernobyl, in my opinion, handles itself with careful consideration for this fact, foregrounding its self-professed goal of memorialising ‘the sacrifices made to save Europe from unimaginable disaster’.

It depicts a disaster but does not overly romanticise it, and it is here that its five-episode-long brevity appears most effective. There are moments where specific emotional responses from the viewer are elicited through music, staging, and performance, but for me, it never lingered for too long.

Chernobyl presents a potent exploration of the human cost of the disaster, the role of the state in fostering a culture of disinformation by attempting to save face on the international political stage, and the devastation wrought to individuals, families, and communities in the wake of radioactive contamination.

With exceptional production design, impeccable directing and evocative performances from its cast, the series marks a huge achievement in historical television. The final, haunting moments of the series, containing real historical footage of the individuals involved in the management of the disaster, serves to emphasise Chernobyl’s harsh reality, the lives it took in its wake, and the importance of memorialising the sacrifice of the individuals involved.

Dan Ewers

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