Rachel Bellwoar reviews the miniseries Chernobyl…
From the fire, which first caught people’s attention, because of its strange coloring, to the burn victims who would die from radiation exposure, “seeing is believing” shouldn’t be a phrase that is needed when discussing the Chernobyl disaster yet it’s one that takes on terrible significance in the Sky Atlantic and HBO miniseries, Chernobyl, about the disaster.
On April 26, 1986 one of the nuclear reactors at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant exploded during a safety test that went horribly wrong. That’s the truth, yet you wouldn’t know it by how long it takes for anyone to admit that’s what happened. For too long the official word is a tank exploded, and people believe it because a) they want to, and b) the reactor wasn’t supposed to be able to explode. That Valery Legasov (Jared Harris) – a scientist who worked with politician, Boris Shcherbina (Stellan Skargård), in the days after Chernobyl – is finally able to convince people it was the core comes down to no one realizing graphite could be damning evidence.
Proof isn’t usually a bad thing to ask for, but there’s nothing usual about Chernobyl. As odd a statement as it might be to make about a TV show, at some point in telling the story of Chernobyl you have to let seeing go. Anatoly Dyatlov (Paul Ritter), the supervising engineer, didn’t in the moments after the explosion. He refused to admit the core wasn’t there and by sending plant workers to check in his stead, exposed them to deadly levels of radiation.
As many visible horrors as there are in the events surrounding Chernobyl, radiation is invisible and it’s that reality that the show captures so well. Music by Hildur Guðnadóttir and sound step in where images fail, creating tension from scenes where nothing looks outwardly wrong. It’s the difference between knowing you’re in danger and feeling like you are. If you can’t see the danger, it’s harder to believe it’s there and you can tell yourself it might not be as bad as they say. Hearing the danger makes-up the difference and while it’s not a soundtrack you’d listen to in the car, that oppressiveness is key to conveying the seriousness of the situation.
Knowing that civilians can’t hear the music, too, makes it even more painful to watch them agree to jobs that robots couldn’t do. In episode two, three men are sent to empty a water tank beneath the reactor. While necessary to prevent a second explosion, Valery estimates they’ll be dead in a week. A Geiger counter becomes the biggest cruelty of all because they have to hear what they agreed to after it’s too late. A Geiger counter is great if you have the option to turn around, but they don’t, so why bring one at all?
When sound can make a difference, though (an alarm going off during the safety test), Dyatlov is able to tell someone to turn it off. Silence, on Chernobyl, becomes a killer and it’s why this miniseries exists: to speak up so disasters like Chernobyl don’t happen again.
Chernobyl is available on DVD starting July 15th in the UK from Acorn. The Blu-ray is out July 29th.