In episode four of the five-part HBO miniseries “Chernobyl,” there are a few scenes that will have you watching between your fingers — when those fingers are not plugging your ears. They are visually, aurally, and emotionally agonizing. I’m not going to spoil anything here; I’ll only say that they involve the cleanup a few months after the Chernobyl nuclear power plant disaster of April 1986 in the Soviet Ukraine, as men wearing protective clothing make their way through evacuated neighborhoods. The scenes drive home the fact that the injury caused by the worst nuclear power accident in history was inflicted not just on the human inhabitants of the area, but also on the natural world. We’re not the only victims of our hubris, self-interest, and sloppiness.
So yes, watching this miniseries is a grim affair, and I mean that as a great compliment to creator, writer, and executive producer Craig Mazin and director Johan Renck. There’s nothing here dulled by the decades that have passed by, no compromises to make it all more watchable. It’s a nightmare well-told, and you need to go into the miniseries bracing yourself for that. The excellence of this dramatization is clear, from the acting to the cinematography, which captures the dreary nuclear plant interiors as well as the uneasy sunlight falling on contaminated land. But it’s excellence in service of a difficult, tragic story, one that opens with a suicide.
In a way, “Chernobyl” is a horror flick, as we see skin melting off hospitalized victims and as we watch loved ones risk their own health for a hug. The big bad — radiation — is invisible; we know of its presence by the madly clicking Geiger counters. It’s a disaster movie, too, as we are taken step by step through that period immediately after one of the four reactors exploded in the dark — but, of course, without that genre’s happily-ever-after ensemble of stars. The disaster movie could share a title with the most recent, fire-filled episode of “Game of Thrones”: “The Long Night.”
But “Chernobyl” is a bleak cautionary tale most of all, as we see Soviet officials including then-General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev (David Dencik, with a port-wine stain on his head) eager to cover up and deny the truth. Terrified more by the political than the nuclear fallout, these Soviet officials continually made the situation worse by rejecting the dire assessments of nuclear physicist Valery Legasov (Jared Harris). Long before drones and somewhat sophisticated Artificial Intelligence devices, there was no way for the world to see exactly what was going on in the ruined reactor, allowing the Kremlin more time to hide the extent of the disaster from the international community. The government’s intentional misrepresentations are sickening to watch. It made me think about climate change, and politically-bred denials of science, and the way disasters only worsen when facts about them are ignored.
The storytelling in “Chernobyl,” which premieres Monday at 9 p.m., is smartly structured to show different levels of the aftermath of the disaster. Harris’s Legasov instantly understands the scope of the crisis — “You are dealing with something that has never happened on this planet before!” he says — and he persists in making his scientific points despite the eye rolling of his superiors. He is on the response team with Stellan Skarsgard’s Deputy Prime Minister Boris Shcherbina, who resists until — in a nice bit of acting by the pair — Legasov finally brings him around. Emily Watson’s Ulana Khomyuk, another Soviet nuclear physicist, is also on the case, going beyond the official statements to learn what really led to the disaster. To its credit, “Chernobyl” — through the dialogue of the scientific characters — makes clear what went wrong.
And then there is the more human subplot about a first-response firefighter who comes into contact with radioactive material. We follow him and his wife into the chaos of the hospital system, which is ill-equipped to deal with this kind of catastrophe. We don’t know much about this couple, and yet, because of their humanity in the middle of the disaster, their fate is extremely affecting. While the powerful officials have been worrying about themselves, the firefighter and his wife represent those who gave to save others. In the middle of all the terror and dread, there is still this spark of spirit.
Starring: Jared Harris, Stellan Skarsgard, Emily Watson, Paul Ritter, Jessie Buckley
On: HBO, Monday at 9 p.m.
Matthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.