Chernobyl (2019) — A harrowing real-life horror story

“To hell with our lives. Someone has to start telling the truth.”

Justin’s rating: Well, I definitely learned the Russian word for “rads” from watching this

Justin’s review: It wasn’t until watching 2019’s highly acclaimed Chernobyl that I realized just how little I actually knew of this historic man-made disaster. In my mind, it was a big explosion that wasn’t quite the same as a nuclear bomb going off, some people got evacuated from the nearby town, they built a big concrete shield over it, and that was that.

Clearly, I knew nothing. Not only had I no idea what really happened at Chernobyl in 1986, but I had no idea what I was in for with this HBO five-part miniseries. I kind of thought it’d be a fast-moving overview of the high-level details of this event, but instead it ended up being a ground-level exploration of the hour-by-hour, day-by-day unfolding of a horrific disaster never before seen on the planet.

It’s tense, uncomfortable, and gripping. It’s the kind of thing that sticks in your head for days afterward — in the best way. It may well be one of the best things that HBO ever produced.

Chernobyl begins with a distant view of an exploding reactor from a nearby town. Initially, nobody knows that the radioactive core ruptured — not the firemen rushing to the scene, not the government, not even the control room operators. In the first critical hours, denial, confusion, and stubbornness reign as radioactivity starts to gush over the region. It only gets worse. The underlying thesis here is that a fascist state worried about looking bad to the world stood in the way of the help and actions it desperately needed to do.

While the disaster happened, we’re told it could have become a whole lot worse — and would have, except for the bold efforts of Valery Legasov (Jared Harris) and a handful of others who pushed back against the socialist communist state until proper actions could be taken to contain and fix. The first three episodes examine the first few days of the disaster, while the fourth its cleanup and the fifth the trial of the decisions made.

The miniseries is masterfully crafted, and while I was watching it, three observations repeatedly came to mind. The first is that I really admired how the filmmakers chose to keep the perspectives limited to certain individuals, showing us only what they see and realize rather than a broader, more omniscient understanding.

The second is Chernobyl’s sound design. Oh, the visuals are pretty haunting — especially some of the deaths and destruction — but I assure you that the soundtrack here is far more eerie. Reportedly, the composer took audio samples recorded at actual nuclear plants and mixed them into the score. It’s the very sound of doom itself.

Finally, I thought that it was downright fascinating to have a movie fully set inside of the USSR with only Russian characters. It’s got that chunky crude Soviet architecture, the oppressive threat of the KGB, and a vastly different mindset from people who are fanatically patriotic — almost to a fault. I’m used to movies where the Russians are the villains or caricatures; here, they’re simply people — some noble, some not-as-great.

Of course, this being HBO, they really couldn’t resist putting in at least ONE scene involving full male nudity. Not quite sure why that’s a staple of this channel, but it is.

Chernobyl shows us the villains of this disaster, but also its heroes, and I found myself enlightened about the nuances of a complicated event. I’m sure you heard others recommending this to you, so add my voice to that crowd. This is a must-watch.

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