The HBO mini-series about the nuclear accident is no mere recreation. It’s a warning that we’d all do well to heed
One of the fundamental problems with films and series based on true events is that if they’re telling an already well-known story viewers will always be one step ahead of the plot. This has a decisive impact on their perception and the risk is that they’ll take it all in with a certain contemplative eagerness, but also observing the series’ ability to avoid a mere recreation of the events. As such, it’s quite an achievement to narrate an event everyone knows how it ends, while keeping audiences on the edge of their seats, in the same way that it’s also no mere feat to tell such a complex story while doing justice to all the intricacies involved. Well, that’s precisely the case with Chernobyl, a five-episode miniseries that reconstructs that fateful day of the accident at the nuclear power station without ever giving you the feeling that you’re watching the retelling of an already told story, nor does the series overdo the melodrama that would distort the eloquence of the facts. The commitment of those responsible is as clear as it is bold: to turn the incident, and its terrifying consequences, into a more sensory and physical experience than into a mere dramatization of the events. A veritable nightmare in the form of a nuclear disaster. That’s why it might not be everyone’s cup of tea, which actually makes this one of the most hard-hitting series we’ve seen this year thus far.
After a prologue that leaves nobody in the dark as to the series’ accusatory animus, Chernobyl monitors the accident at the plant itself in meticulous detail, presenting the different points of view that enable audiences to fully comprehend the event in all its dimensions. We hear from the technicians who worked in the reactor, families who lived nearby, first responder emergency crews, as well as the politicians who, with all their misgivings, waived the need for an immediate response. The different perspectives of the same event and its consequences are transmitted with a level of sobriety that becomes almost unbearable: Chernobyl throughout refrains from the temptation to play the disaster trump card (there are no spectacular scenes to emphasize the tragedy, but it does emanate from the claustrophobia and anguish of not knowing how to deal with the events) and focuses on exploring the progressive desolation consuming all the direct and indirect victims of the accident. The scene in which the disaster occurs is truly significant. We hear a distant noise and see the flames of what will eventually become one of the most traumatic episodes of the 80s, but at no point is there any hint of a morbid interest in displaying anything that isn’t directly associated with that feeling of uncertainty, of helplessness. The camera doesn’t go in search of the horror, but rather prefers that audiences breathe it in and uses powerful images like that of a dead bird to represent the dread. We know how it ends, how it all pans out, but seeing it from such a respectful, while at the same time, bleak perspective helps us realize that what happened at Chernobyl cries out to all of us. It did then, and it continues to do so now.
So, that’s why I cannot recommend this miniseries highly enough. Apart from its surprisingly narrative register, masterfully accompanied by a fabulous team of interpreters, the series knows exactly how to transcend the historical context to become a metaphor for the errors that we cannot repeat and the importance of never forgetting. The accident happened 33 years ago, but there is still a tendency to politicize the issues instead of addressing the social and personal damage inflicted. “Chernobyl” is a criticism of political backsliding, lack of humanity, bureaucracy masquerading behind ideological aspirations, and irresponsible practices in the management of tragedies. It is not a recreation, it is a warning, and we’d do well to heed it.