Column: HBO’s ‘Chernobyl’ puts catastrophe in perspective

Adam Tumino

The 2019 HBO miniseries “Chernobyl” is more than just a stunning achievement in storytelling. It is also a redemption story of sorts for the show’s creator, Craig Mazin.

Much of Mazin’s career has been as a writer and he has contributed to some of the most dreadful comedy sequels of the last 15 years, chiefly the third and fourth installments of the “Scary Movie” franchise and the second and third “Hangover” movies.

He may have set the bar pretty low, but his work on “Chernobyl” would have cleared the bar even if it was in the stratosphere.

Although it came out in 2019, I just watched “Chernobyl” for the first time. It will not be the last.

It tells the story of the nuclear disaster that occurred April 26, 1986, at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant near the city of Pripyat in present day Ukraine when a reactor at the plant exploded, causing a nuclear meltdown.

The series open on the two-year anniversary of the event before flashing back to just minutes before the core explodes.

From there it follows the people who responded to the disaster, those who attempted to stop it from worsening, those who studied how it happened and those who tried their best to cover it up.

The series is full of haunting images, including a beam of radioactive light shining through the sky after the explosion and a crowd of onlookers who are unknowingly being showered in radioactive debris.

It also has its share of horrific images. A fireman at the scene of the explosion loses the skin on his hand after touching radioactive material and some of the scientists and other first responders are shown in the hospital in the days and weeks following the disaster, their skin decayed and melting away from the radiation exposure.

It also features scenes that seem to be straight out of a horror movie, like when three men have to reenter the plant to open safety valves and the only thing we can hear is the frantic clicking of their Geiger counters.

“Chernobyl” does an excellent job showing us the scientific and political aftermath of the nuclear disaster, but also takes time to explore the human toll.

It looks at heroic miners who worked nonstop to prevent nuclear material from seeping into the groundwater and has a heartbreaking sequence featuring the soldiers who had to go from village to village, after they had been evacuated, and exterminating any contaminated house pets that were left behind.

It is anchored by solid performances all around, particularly from the main cast of Stellan Skarsgård as a Soviet politician and Jared Harris and Emily Watson as nuclear physicists.

“Chernobyl” is also a noble effort, telling the stories of the heroic people who saved millions of lives while sacrificing their own.

Due to Soviet policies at the time, there is no reliable death toll for the Chernobyl disaster. As the show points out, the official death toll is 31, mostly involving people who were directly exposed to high doses of radiation at the site of the initial explosion.

No one truly knows how many people died globally as a result of the radiation-related illnesses and cancers that were caused from the release of the nuclear material into the atmosphere.

The show does say that most estimates are between 4,000 and 90,000 people, but we will never truly know.

 

Adam Tumino is a senior journalism major. He can be reached at 581-2812 or [email protected]