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Chernobyl review – chaos reigns in confusing nuclear disaster epic via The Guardian

With Jared Harris starring, this miniseries about the 1986 meltdown should be gripping – but instead strands viewers in a bewildering cloud of unanswered questions

by Lucy Mangan

Chernobyl is like the 80s nuclear horror-drama Threads crossed with the disaster-movie classic The Towering Inferno – but delivers neither the shocking realism of one nor the schlocky flair of the other. Sky Atlantic’s five-part miniseries (co-produced with HBO) dramatises the 1986 disaster at the nuclear power station in what is now Ukraine.

It is – at least so far – a confusing sprawl for anyone not au fait with the details of the catastrophe itself, the workings of nuclear reactors generally, or with a very good eye for faces obscured by dust and smoke, and a knack for remembering complicated names drowned out by the sound of reactor cores exploding.

We begin with the suicide of nuclear physicist and state apparatchik Valery Legasov (Jared Harris) two years to the minute after the event, before heading back to 1986 as the good people of Pripyat note a distant glow on the horizon and – seconds later – are bracing themselves against a blast wave.

It is a bad sign when the first few minutes of a drama raise more extra-narrative questions than answers. Did the residents have no fear of what such a sight might mean? Why are they not running around trying to flee, as we would be? I am sure it is something to do with soothing, Communist-era propaganda and a well-trained, incurious mindset, but the writers need to sketch these things in a bit if they want viewers to be involved rather than instantly baffled by their story. This particular example becomes more pressing in a later scene, when we see the townspeople gazing in wonder at the distant fire and ionised blue air above it as their children play in the radioactive ash accumulating at their feet. I mean, I have questions.


We should be engaged by the tragic flaws and nobility of all this by this point, but the story and characters have gone so uncorralled that it takes all your viewing energy just to keep it fractionally straight. I understand that it was a time of chaos – and very shortly after that, lies, half-truths and obfuscations that endangered lives and protected careers – but you can’t reflect that literally in a drama without incurring severe and pointless costs.

Things may improve over the coming weeks as the smoke clears, and I hope so. Chernobyl is a story that has everything, but at the moment, comrades, justice is not being done to it.

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