HBO and Sky’s five-hour miniseries about the world’s worst nuclear power plant disaster comes with the usual coda. Some names have been changed, and some events and characters fictionalised, modified or composited for dramatic purposes.
Yet no piece of dramatised non-fiction has ever felt this authentic. The No 4 reactor at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant exploded on April 26, 1986, during a late-night safety test simulating a power failure.
The miniseries opens two years after the catastrophe. Physicist Valery Legasov (Jared Harris), the man who led the commission that investigated the accident, has just finished dictating into a tape recorder his account of the incompetence that caused the explosion and the shocking official cover-up that followed.
Slipping out of his modest apartment and past the KGB man sitting in a parked car across the street, Legasov stashes the cassette tapes, which would eventually reach the outside world, behind a grill in an alleyway. Then he returns home, and having fed his cat, smoked a cigarette and put on his overcoat, hangs himself.
Nuclear fallout: Emily Watson and Jared Harris in Chernobyl
We’re immediately transported back two years to the night of the disaster. In an even more modest apartment in the town of Pripyat, pregnant young wife Lyudmilla Ignatenko (Irish actress Jessie Buckley) is returning to bed after a trip to the bathroom when she hears a loud bang and the building is shaken by the force of an explosion at the Chernobyl plant, three kilometres away.
Her husband Vasily (Adam Nagaitis), a fireman, is roused from his sleep and one of the first responders on the scene. He’ll also be one of the first to die a slow, agonising death from radiation poisoning.
When he arrives to battle the inferno, however, the awful reality of what’s just happened hasn’t yet registered. It soon does, though.
One of Vasily’s colleagues picks up a lump of debris, without realising what he’s handling. It twinkles like granite, but it’s actually a piece of radioactive graphite. Within minutes, he’s peeling off his heavy fireman’s glove to reveal a bleeding, blistered hand that looks like it’s been pressed against a scalding hotplate.
Inside the plant, the lies, deception and denials begin within moments of the explosion.
Chernobyl’s deputy chief engineer Anatoly Dyatlov (Paul Ritter), who supervised the disastrous safety test, refuses to believe (or pretends not to believe) the evidence of a junior colleague’s eyes, that it’s the reactor core, and not merely a tank, that has exploded.
He continually orders men to descend into the bowels of the plant to open valves and turn on water pipes to a core that no longer exists.
Even as they return, blistered and bleeding and vomiting because of radiation levels so high that they max out the measuring instruments, Dyatlov still refuses to acknowledge the truth — until he too falls ill.
Meanwhile, safely ensconced in a nuclear bunker, the plant’s manager Viktor Bryukhanov (Con O’Neill) and a group of cowardly fellow bureaucrats engage in a damage-limitation exercise. One official, the only sane voice in the room, urges evacuating Pripyat (“The air is glowing!”). Instead they take the decision to seal it off, trapping the residents and cutting the telephone lines in order to “prevent the spread of misinformation”.
In Pripyat, the unwitting locals stand on a bridge, transfixed by the ethereal light (caused by radioactive particles in the atmosphere) in the distance, while children lark around in the gathering pile of toxic ash, as though playing in the sand at a beach.
Writer Craig Mazin, best known before now for writing the comedy The Hangover and its sequels, and director Johan Renck have crafted an unflinching, devastatingly powerful drama with the tautness of a thriller and the chilling veracity of a documentary.
The fact that the large cast —including Emily Watson, Stellan Skarsgard and Ireland’s Barry Keoghan in later episodes — avoid fake Russian accents adds to the realism.