Halloween is just a couple of days away, so it’s that time of year where all our horror movies have a healthy circulation. Still, the most horrifying thing I’ve watched recently wasn’t a slasher movie. Instead, it was a matter-of-fact HBO miniseries about the infamous 1986 Soviet nuclear accident at Chernobyl. . . .
This series got a lot of critical acclaim when it was first released earlier this year, so I have been anxiously awaiting for it to come out on DVD, so I can watch it. (Thanks to Julie for good-naturedly humoring my multiple purchase requests and adding it to the collection!)
One of the reasons I wanted to watch this show–besides being interested in history and especially Soviet history in general–is that it has such a stellar ensemble cast! Jared Harris (of Mad Men, The Crown, and The Terror fame) gets top-billing and rightfully so–if there is a main character, it is his Valery Legasov, a Soviet nuclear physicist who is called in to advise shortly after the initial explosion takes place in April 1986.
He’s excellent in the role, but really everyone in the cast does a wonderful job, from Stellan Skarsgård as a gruff Communist Party official who accompanies Legasov to Emily Watson as Legasov’s fellow scientist to Adam Nagaitis as a fireman who is one of the first responders to what is initially only reported as a fire. One of my favorite dynamics in the show was the wary friendship that develops between Harris’s and Skarsgård’s characters as they have to work together to contain the crisis.
Overall, I thought the show did a great job of helping viewers follow along as the characters reconstruct what happened at Chernobyl and take steps to prevent worse disaster in the explosion’s wake, despite the highly technical nature of much of the material. The show throws you into the middle of things pretty quickly, so it took me awhile to sort out who is who and what was going down, but I never really found it hard to follow.
The result is both gripping and horrifying. I thought the show did a great job of avoiding being gratuitous in what it depicted while also not at all underselling how awful the consequences of the event were. For that reason, this show is definitely not for the squeamish.
I also appreciated that, though the show definitely tries to make itself as accessible as possible for its audience, it doesn’t shy away from depicting complex themes and characters. In many ways, it is murky who the real villain of the story is.
Likewise, the overarching theme of the series is the cost of lies (and the flip side–the cost of truth) since much of what happened was exacerbated by lies for self-preservation to save face, though the penalties for telling the truth in the Soviet Union were also grim. It’s a conundrum that many of the characters grapple with in the course of the show’s 5 episodes, and the resulting suspense is just as harrowing as the scenes relating to the nuclear accident itself.
So, if you are looking for something truly terrifying to watch–not only for its depiction of atomic disaster but also for its nightmarishly effective depiction of life in a totalitarian state–consider Chernobyl.