“Repeat a lie enough and it often becomes the truth.”
Remember ‘the big lie’ – a phrase coined by Hitler – which was used to eliminate Jews?
Now a more sophisticated version of the same Nazi propaganda is being used by governments and political parties across the world to protect personal interests. HBO’s Chernobyl explores the footprints of this subterfuge in the aftermath of the world’s greatest nuclear disaster.
A dramatised account of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, the miniseries oscillates between 1986 and 1987 through five episodes, mapping the timeline of the disaster and its grim consequences in the Soviet Union.
The show opens with a hard-hitting confession being recorded by Valery Alekseyevich Legasov – one of the central characters of the show, based on the real-life inorganic chemist – that finds its relevance in the denouement, in the final episode that aired on Tuesday morning on Hotstar.
On the fateful night of 26 April 1986, an explosion is seen – both by panicked and bewildered scientists trying to make sense of what went wrong, and a pregnant woman (introduced as Lyudmilla Ignatenko) who views it from the window of her apartment. Little did these witnesses know the explosion set the clocks ticking for death. But what set off this explosion and why was chief engineer Anatoly Dyatlov so nonchalant about it?
In a gripping narrative that questions the system behind the catastrophe, creator, executive producer and writer Craig Mazin manages to efficiently stitch together a series of events that occurred in the wake of the explosion of Chernobyl’s nuclear reactor No 4.
Mazin’s storytelling is detailed and powerful, with director Johan Renck exploring the different aspects of the disaster beautifully – the human experience, the expert eye of nuclear scientists, and the corrupt system above them all – with the right pauses on each.
With a brilliant cast and incisive dialogues lending power to the plot, the show makes for a binge-worthy watch – albeit a flinching and uncomfortable one.
One question is repeated through four episodes, by the panicking scientists in the control room that night, by those aiming at damage control and by the perpetrators of the crime – How does an RBMK reactor explode? Sounds heavy on science alright, but it’s not just a question about the field, it’s one that hinges on morality. As a layman, you are fed this question again and again to find an answer in the events that led to the disaster, and while you piece the puzzle together, it’s in the series finale that Soviet politician Boris Shcherbina, nuclear physicist Ulana Khomyuk and Valery Legasov give you a minute-by-minute account of what went down.
There are dangerous repercussions to a nuclear disaster. And Chernobyl forces you to see it all – how those exposed to massive amounts of radiation die frightening deaths – skin peeling off, organs rupturing; how thousands are asked to evacuate their homes – citing a temporary move; how liquidators are forced to kill radioactive animals across miles; how vast swathes of farmland with fresh harvest are wiped out.
Some haunting and devastating scenes deserve a mention: of a young liquidator who finds it difficult to shoot a dog and its puppies while his supervisor guns them down; of Lyudmilla Ignatenko looking at the hospital building and lying about the view to her dying husband – a firefighter who was exposed to radiation; of “biorobots” or humans asked to remove the graphite debris from the roof of the power plant, being told “these are the most important 90 seconds of your life”; and an adamant babushka who refuses to evacuate, saying she’s seen wars and deaths in 80 years of her life “and you’re asking me to leave for something I cannot see?”
Actors Jared Harris (Legasov), Stellan Skarsgård (Scherbina), and Emily Watson (Khomyuk) deliver stellar performances. They are so convincing in their roles, that you feel for them, you root for them, you find yourself empathising with the understated heroes.
End credits and real-life montages of the Chernobyl disaster reveal Khomyuk’s character was built to signify the efforts of the many nuclear scientists who helped uncover the truth, while also saying that President Gorbachev believed the disaster likely spelt the collapse of the Soviet Union.
A lot has been debated over the truthful depiction of the nuclear disaster – whether an exposed reactor core emits blue light, whether radiation-related deaths are indeed as gory, whether scientists called each other comrades in the Soviet era – but despite the creative liberties, Craig Mazin delivers a masterpiece in Chernobyl, easily one of the most relevant shows of our time. Peppered with relevant questions, Chernobyl rattles your core.
“We are, all of us right now, living through a time when the truth is being manipulated and distorted and almost made fun of,” said Mazin in an interview with the Entertainment Weekly – and we can’t disagree.
From bureaucracy to corruption and secrecy, we are familiar with what powers governments. That 33 years ago the Soviet Union did the same – spinning a web of lies to protect its interests – is no surprise. But as Chernobyl continues to be a highly radioactive region, with an exclusion zone mapping 2,600 kms, polluting the environment beyond repair, breeding cancer and birth-defects, and killing possibly thousands while the official death toll still reads 31, one asks what Legasov opens his confession with: “What is the cost of lies?”
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