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HBO’s ‘Chernobyl’ a sobering, prophetic view

Since more and more quality programming is coming to streaming services, my wife and I have been taking advantage. One show we recently finished watching was the HBO miniseries "Chernobyl." Following is the review that I wrote for Spokane Public Radio:

On April 26, 1986, a few seconds after 1:24 a.m., the reactor at the Ukrainian Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant suffered a catastrophic accident.

A test to, ironically, check safety protocols went horribly wrong, causing an unchecked nuclear reaction, a massive buildup of steam, two separate explosions mere seconds apart and – over the next few days – the release of radioactive particles into the air that were detected as far away as Sweden.

This is a bare-bones description of the incident that writer-producer Craig Mazin used to create a five-part HBO miniseries, titled – succinctly enough – “Chernobyl.” Directed by Johan Renck, and starring a cast of international talent that includes Britain’s Jared Harris, Sweden’s Stellan Skarsgärd and Ireland’s Jessie Buckley, “Chernobyl” is a look at how willful ignorance can – in this case almost did – lead to world-wide calamity.

Harris plays real-life nuclear engineer Valery Legasov. And as Mazin has him say, “Every lie we tell incurs a debt to the truth.”

Lies were told at every level of the Soviet Union, from the engineer in charge of the safety test to the upper levels of the Soviet hierarchy, all members of whom reported to Mikhail Gorbachev – the last General Secretary of the USSR’s Communist Party.

Mazin centers his film on Legasov, a reluctant hero well aware of how the entrenched Soviet leadership loathes to change policy – or to admit that change might be necessary. Even after the accident occurs.

While experts still debate the specific causes of the explosions, no one disputes that the accident occurred, resulting in the near-immediate deaths of three plant workers, then in the following weeks nearly 30 more – among them many of the firefighters who labored to put out what they thought was just an ordinary fire.

The radiation claimed them, as it ultimately did thousands of others – estimates vary from a few thousand to as high as 90,000 – in the following months and years.

Mazin puts us in the plant’s control center as the workers slowly realize what is happening, badgered and then blamed by their supervisor. We see the struggle to contain the damage, and how it affects not just the workers but the nearby village of Pripyat – the residents of which were not evacuated until nearly two days later because, like so much else involving Soviet affairs, the officials didn’t want the facts to become public.

Their efforts were as fruitless as those of the firefighters, unlike those of a legion of other courageous souls: the coal-miners conscripted to dig a tunnel under the still-burning plant, those who volunteered to clean radioactive graphite from the plant’s roof, not to mention many of the Ukrainian citizens who would feel the effects of the poisoning for decades to come.

“Chernobyl” the series has been nominated for 19 Emmy Awards, and it deserves all of them – especially for Harris and Skarsgärd but also for Emily Watson, whose character is an amalgam of all the brave nuclear engineers who worked to get at the actual truth.

As Legasov, finishing his thought about the price of lying, says: “Sooner or later, the debt is paid.”