Orwellian self-denial meets Kafkaesque nightmare in this gripping dramatisation of the Chernobyl disaster
There are many remarkable things about this dramatisation of the 1986 nuclear accident at Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant: its attention to period detail, its oppressive, haunting score by Hildur Guðnadóttir, which melds immaculately with Joe Beal and Stefan Henrix’s deeply unsettling sound design, and the calibre of the acting from top to bottom. But the most remarkable thing may be that the script comes from the same man that gave us The Hangover Part III, Scary Movie 4 and Superhero Movie. In the history of film and TV, there may have never been a more bewildering jump in quality and tone.
Working from Craig Mazin’s scripts, director Johan Renck brings the 80s Soviet Union to bleak life across five near-perfect episodes. Its opener, 1:23:45 – the time at which the Chernobyl's nuclear reactor exploded – is one of the most atmospheric, claustrophobic and paranoid hours of television you’re likely to see. After a short prologue, we’re thrown into the chaos of the power plant moments after the core has become exposed, and the engineers are being told again and again that everything is fine. After all, Russian power plants don't explode.
Once the plant’s assistant chief engineer has told his subordinates that there’s been no explosion, the die is cast. Engineers, firefighters and military personnel are thrown at a problem that few truly understand, and which fewer still are willing to acknowledge is even happening. Death pervades every corner and every atom of the screen, and in the corridors of power, little is done, as Orwellian self-denial meets the wilful Kafkaesque nightmare that was Soviet politicking.
In its closing stretch, the miniseries catches its breath as it takes stock of the fallout (nuclear and otherwise) and delves into the mechanics of how the plant failed, but it’s never less than utterly compelling. [Tom Charles]