“What is the cost of lies? It’s not that we will mistake them for the truth. The real danger is that, if we hear enough lies, then we no longer recognize the truth at all.”
It was just meant to be a safety test, but something went horribly wrong. The failsafe button was pushed, the power output spiked to astronomical levels, and then the building shook. Nuclear reactors don’t explode. Nuclear reactors can’t explode. But the terror on the faces around the control room revealed a different truth—a truth that must be, one that defied the tenets of nuclear science believed by these men.
That opening line from HBO’s limited mini-series Chernobyl could be as pertinent in today’s politics-vs-science climate as on April 26, 1986. Over five terrifying episodes, we’ve learned about the multiple issues—including suppression of information about the flaws in the reactor design and inadequately trained workers—that inevitably led to one of the worst nuclear accidents in history.
Chernobyl went surprisingly under the radar for the first few weeks of its broadcast, probably because it overlapped with the last couple episodes of the HBO juggernaut Game of Thrones. Average viewership was around 1 million per episode in the US. One can only hope that the number increases via streaming as award buzz grows, because this show strongly deserves it. The script by showrunner Craig “Don’t judge me just by The Hangover” Mazin is excellent, the performances by the whole cast—and especially Jared Harris—are Emmy-worthy, and the practical effects of the radiation exposure victims are perfectly repulsive.
But the unsung star for me is the haunting score by Icelandic composer and cellist, Hilder Guðnadóttir, who incorporated recordings she collected with collaborator Sam Slater from a power plant in Lithuania, near the filming location, in her composition. They add a creepy, otherworldly element to the terrifying story presentation.
Chernobyl also has its own podcast, hosted by Peter Sagal of Wait Wait . . . Don’t Tell Me!, with episodes devoted to each episode of the series. Sagal speaks with Mazin about the show’s themes, characters, and where the creators chose to take poetic license. (Chernobyl is a narrative show, after all.)
Since the only way to currently see Chernobyl is by streaming it through HBO, presentation is limited to 1080p and Dolby Digital. There are some compression artifacts notable in dark scenes. Two examples that come to mind are during the opening when the reactor explosion is seen from a distance against the night sky, and also when three workers descend into the darkness of the plant days after the explosion to open water valves. The sound design incorporates the 5.1 channels well during both of those scenes. But this is primarily a dialogue-driven series, so about the only time any amount of information is sent to the surrounds is during the disaster.
Hopefully sometime soon— after Chernobyl presumably wins some awards—HBO will release the Blu-ray UHD version the show deserves. Although at the rate they network’s going, we’ll be lucky to get it before the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone is deemed safe for the living.