Watch “Chernobyl.” That’s All.
Not since 1979’s hit film, “The China Syndrome,” has a thriller about a nuclear accident gripped viewers with raw fear.
Difference is, “The China Syndrome” was fiction. “Chernobyl,” on HBO, is not.
For the past two Monday nights I’ve been riveted to the first episodes of the harrowing five-part miniseries. It chronicles the 1986 catastrophe at the atomic power plant in Ukraine when one reactor exploded, shooting waves of radioactive material into the atmosphere. Radiation released at Chernobyl was the equivalent of about 400 to 500 Hiroshima bombs, they say.
At least 28 people died immediately and many more suffered from acute radiation sickness and later, cancer.
The exact casualty and mortality figures are unknown because, well, this was the Soviet Union.
And that’s the crux of the story: The fundamental dishonesty of communist party apparatchiks who dawdled and dithered and were willing to allow their comrades to be sickened with radiation rather than admit that one of their modern power plants had suffered a catastrophic accident.
If you haven’t seen “Chernobyl” or don’t have HBO, find a friend who does and offer to bring the vodka.
It’s that good.
From what I’ve read, research on the Chernobyl accident was exhaustive and the sequence of missteps that occurred immediately after the meltdown is accurately presented in this HBO/Sky Television production. Much of the series was filmed on location at Chernobyl’s sister power plant in Ukraine. Oh, and the series was directed by Johan Renek, of “Breaking Bad” fame.
Frankly, it’s the cynical behavior of plant engineers and bumbling bureaucrats eager to deflect blame that is truly horrifying. At first, officials in Chernobyl denied that the core was melting down and assured Moscow that the fire was under control when it wasn’t. To keep control of the situation, authorities cut phone lines to the nearby town of roughly 50,000 and brought in thousands of soldiers to prevent residents from leaving.
When a nuclear physicist assures high-level party officials that the reactor core is indeed exposed, their initial concern isn’t safety, but to keep the news under wraps.
“The foreign press?” Mikhail Gorbachev asks of the committee charged with managing the crisis. A party lackey assures him that the Soviet Union’s “security interests” are being protected.
Soviet leaders were willing to trap their own people - families, pregnant women, children - in a what viewers already know will become a radioactive wasteland rather than let the news leak to the world.
As the plume of radiation spreads across Eastern Europe it is detected first in Sweden. At about the same time, US satellites capture images of the raging fire at the plant. Once the scope of the accident is known, residents are hastily evacuated and officials come up with an imperfect and risky plan to put out the fire.
Hey, I’ve only seen the first two installments.
Strangely enough, knowing how deadly serious the Cernobyl accident was only adds to the sense of horror for the audience. Scenes of fire fighters in ordinary gear spraying water onto the fire in the reactor core are chilling. So are images of families watching the conflagration from a distance as they’re dusted in radioactive ash.
I’m a fan of premium channels - HBO and Showtime - and the high-quality series they produce. “Chernobyl” may be the best.
The sense of foreboding and doom is overwhelming from the opening scene.
Unlike “The China Syndrome,” which ginned up public fear of atomic power, “Chernobyl” is more likely to cause a reasonable fear of centralized power in the hands of small, fearful men.