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'Chernobyl' review: Powerful, remarkable miniseries about 1986 Soviet nuclear disaster

Emily Watson in HBO's "Chernobyl."

Emily Watson in HBO's "Chernobyl."  Credit: HBO/Liam Daniel

MINISERIES "Chernobyl"

WHEN | WHERE Part 1 premieres Monday at 9 p.m. on HBO.

WHAT IT'S ABOUT Early on the morning of April 26, 1986, administrators of the V.I. Lenin Nuclear Power Plant (better known as Chernobyl) in Pripyat – a small city in northern Ukraine – decide to force a test of Reactor No. 4. This test is extremely ill-advised, but they've already tried and failed three times, and a successful test would mean promotions for each. As part of this test, the reactor is powered down, and then the impossible happens: It begins to power up on its own. When an engineer presses the kill switch (which would shut down the reactor), it acts as an accelerant instead. The reactor explodes, sending chunks of radioactive graphite into the air, and plumes of radioactive snow aloft. The worst nuclear power plant disaster in history — by far — has just begun.

Those are the basic facts. "Chernobyl," this five-part HBO miniseries — filmed in Lithuania and Ukraine — tells what happens next. Valery Legasov (Jared Harris), a nuclear physicist with the Kurchatov Institute, is called in for counsel, but at first, a group of Soviet apparatchiks assembled by Mikhail Gorbachev (David Dencik) decide to accept the lies that those panicked administrators have been telling them — that the "problem" has been contained. Legasov insists otherwise. Graphite has been found by firemen, which means the reactor has blown and a meltdown may be in progress.

Gorbachev tells Legasov and his deputy prime minister, Boris Shcherbina (Stellan Skarsgård), to go to Chernobyl. What they find stuns them, but another physicist, Ulana Khomyuk (Emily Watson) — a composite character of several scientists who worked on the catastrophe — tells them the worst is yet to come. Meanwhile, they have to find a way around the official Kremlin story — a false one — and the chief of the KGB (played, chillingly, by playwright and veteran actor Alan Williams).

MY SAY There's a lonely memorial near Chernobyl called “Monument to Those Who Saved the World.” Easily spotted on Google maps, it's now a tourist stop for those brave (or foolish?) enough to take a tour of the blighted ghost town of Pripyat.

About 50 miles to the south is Kiev, ancient capital of Ukraine, population 3 million, which would have been wiped out if a meltdown had resulted in a thermonuclear explosion, as “Chernobyl” indicates was a real possibility.

As terrible as the disaster was, the worst didn't happen. Hence that lonely monument, and hence this five-hour film — a remarkable testament in its own right to human folly and human courage and the triumph of truth over lies.

And “Chernobyl” is remarkable in all sorts of ways, beginning with the most obvious — how did something like this ever get on the air in the first place? (Go ahead — ask your friend and neighbor, when was the last time they thought about Chernobyl, and if you really want to annoy them, ask if they even know what a “Chernobyl” is.)

These five hours were directed by Swedish-born Johan Renck, best known as a prolific director of music videos. It was created and written by Craig Mazin, a well-regarded Hollywood scribe whose chief credit to date, nonetheless, is “The Hangover Part II.”

To call this effort “precocious” might seem patronizing except that it is precocious. Mazin has created something both beautiful and startling here. It's also a deeply human portrait of a people most Americans have been taught to dehumanize for far too long. On TV, "Chernobyl's" only peer is the late, great “The Americans,” which also sought to understand the Soviet Orwellian “memory hole” without demonizing those enslaved by it.

“Chernobyl” is a direct rebuke to that memory hole, and at least in this instance, the power of truth over the big lie. In voice-over, Harris' Legasov gets straight to the heart of that in the closing seconds: “The truth doesn't care about our needs or wants, or governments, or ideologies, or our religions. It will lie in wait for all time and . . . this, at last, is the gift of Chernobyl.”

Ironically enough, the gift of Chernobyl is also “Chernobyl.” This isn't just a gripping five-part disaster film but an examination of Soviet news-speak in its late-stage death throes. It's intelligent, at times intricate, explanatory journalism, especially about nuclear power technology. By the end of this, you'll know more about “open-air graphite fires” and Soviet-era RBMK reactors then you may have ever wanted to, yet none of the details feel superfluous or muddled. Among its other accomplishments, “Chernobyl” appears to get the science right, too.

The performances are all first-rate, some by actors you've likely never seen. Their relative anonymity on American TV and film is a strength because you become invested in the performance instead of the famous person giving one. Yes, Harris — late, beloved Lane Pryce from “Mad Men” — is well-known and so is two-time Oscar nominee Watson. But the veteran Skarsgård would be among the world's best-actors-you've-never-heard-of if he hadn't become Selvig of “The Avengers” franchise late in his career.

What's it like to watch these five hours? “Chernobyl” can grueling but never a slog. It sometimes forces you to avert your gaze for whole scenes — children playing in irradiated “snow” that will kill thousands within years; soldiers clearing a de-populated city of the pets left behind; endless clean-up efforts that are as deadly as they are futile.

But to hold the gaze is to learn, and to finally — fully — absorb the meaning of this film: Truth does lie in wait and truth does have all the time in the world. The sobering lesson of "Chernobyl" is that humanity does not.

BOTTOM LINE A powerful testament, and TV's best miniseries since last fall's “Escape at Dannemora.”

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