This is a mostly quite well-done dramatization of the reaction to and investigation into the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. This is actually a relatively uncommon narrative topic – not just Chernobyl but nuclear energy in particular – and honestly I can only think of one narrative film off the top of my head that’s about something similar. That’s The China Syndrome, a completely fictional story and one that would likely strike me as alarmist now, though didn’t when I watched it 20+ years ago. That’s all to say that I appreciate the effort – this story hasn’t been told, like this, as far as I know and these types of stories are under told, at least on the narrative side. (There are many documentaries about nuclear power, many of which are terrible.)
The show does begin at the end, which is a crutch that is way too over-used at this point. However, in this one case, it makes a fair amount of sense. But I like how, immediately after, it plunges us into the world immediately post-explosion. Though we all know “Chernobyl” most of us probably don’t know what actually happened and are only a little bit more informed than the people living in the town at the time. (Okay, we have the internet, we’re a lot more informed.) I like how there’s just a bang and then people have to do their jobs. That part is well done.
What’s also well done is how frustrating the Soviet bureaucracy is. In this day and age, many of us, especially those younger than me, likely don’t have the remotest conception of what it was like to work in the Soviet Union. This series does an aggravatingly good job at displaying it. It’s so good at this part that people complain about it being repetitive and some people have turned it off. If you are frustrated by these people, well, that is the point.
It’s far from perfect though and there are a number of problems:
- The decision to occasionally include Russian is really weird for a British show in English. (For those of you who don’t like the British accents. It’s a British show. Do you not like it during American shows when they have American accents? It’s way better than them having fake Russian accents while they speak English.) I don’t know that it adds anything.
- Occasionally the script is too explicit in tell us what to think and this reaches its culmination in the trial, when we get a big Mr. Smith Goes to Washington moment.
- Legasov is entirely too brave. I don’t know how accurate this is but he feels like he should have been shot or ignored early on. I think his character is entirely too western, though I could be wrong.
- Combining “dozens” of scientists (their words) into Emily Watson’s character feels like a major flaw. Did they feel we couldn’t handle a bigger cast? This is a 5+ hour show, I think we could have handled a few more cast members. I would have preferred a more accurate story here, in part because Watson’s character feels a little like a plot device, rather than a character. (Not so much in her opening scenes, which are fine, but as the show builds to its climax.)
But mostly I think it’s pretty good. And it’s relatively rare. It shows some potential for using TV miniseries for docudramas, something that is relatively infrequent. (At least relatively infrequent in the “cable” world.” Does “cable” still mean anything any more?) It’s an underknown and under-told story like this that reminds me we could have a lot more interesting stuff on TV and in movies, if more people were willing to tell these stories, instead of trying to replicate the last hit. Long-form narrative TV is well-suited to this kind of thing. Certainly a 2-hour movie about this would have been a lot worse.