Chernobyl is a historical drama television miniseries created and written by Craig Mazin and directed by Johan Renck for HBO. The series centers around the Chernobyl nuclear disaster of April 1986 and the unprecedented cleanup efforts that followed. Produced by HBO in association with Sky UK, it features an ensemble cast led by Jared Harris, Stellan Skarsgård and Emily Watson.
|Created by||Craig Mazin|
|Written by||Craig Mazin|
|Directed by||Johan Renck|
|Country of origin|
|No. of episodes||5 (list of episodes)|
|Running time||60–72 minutes|
|Distributor||Warner Bros. Television Distribution|
|Original release||May 6 –|
June 3, 2019
The series premiered in five parts in the United States on May 6, 2019, and concurrently in the United Kingdom on May 7, to critical acclaim. At the 71st Primetime Emmy Awards, it received nineteen nominations, and won for Outstanding Limited Series, Outstanding Directing, and Outstanding Writing, while Harris, Skarsgård, and Watson received acting nominations.
Chernobyl dramatizes the story of the April 1986 nuclear plant disaster which occurred in the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, Soviet Union, telling the stories of the people who caused the disaster and those who responded to it. The series depicts some of the lesser known stories of the disaster, including the efforts of the firefighters who were the first responders on the scene, volunteers, and teams of miners tasked with digging a critical tunnel under Reactor 4.
- Jared Harris as Valery Legasov, the deputy director of the Kurchatov Institute brought in to aid cleanup efforts.
- Stellan Skarsgård as Boris Shcherbina, the Council of Ministers' deputy chairman.
- Emily Watson as Ulana Khomyuk, a nuclear physicist from Minsk. Khomyuk is a fictional composite character, who Watson says "represents the many scientists who worked fearlessly and put themselves in a lot of danger to help solve the situation".
- Paul Ritter as Anatoly Dyatlov, the deputy chief engineer at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant.
- Jessie Buckley as Lyudmilla Ignatenko, the wife of Vasily Ignatenko.
- Adam Nagaitis as Vasily Ignatenko, a Pripyat firefighter and first responder to the Chernobyl fire.
- Con O'Neill as Viktor Bryukhanov, the manager of Chernobyl.
- Adrian Rawlins as Nikolai Fomin, the chief engineer at Chernobyl.
- Sam Troughton as Aleksandr Akimov, the night shift supervisor at Chernobyl.
- Robert Emms as Leonid Toptunov, the senior engineer at Chernobyl.
- David Dencik as Mikhail Gorbachev, the General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.
- Mark Lewis Jones as Vladimir Pikalov, the commander of the Soviet chemical forces.
- Alan Williams as Charkov, the KGB's first deputy chairman.
- Alex Ferns as Andrei Glukhov, the mining crew chief.
- Ralph Ineson as Nikolai Tarakanov, the chief supervisor of the cleanup operation.
- Barry Keoghan as Pavel Gremov, a civilian liquidator draftee.
- Fares Fares as Bacho, a Georgian soldier and Soviet–Afghan War veteran who trains Pavel.
- Michael McElhatton as Andrei Stepashin, the prosecutor for the trial of Dyatlov, Bryukhanov, and Fomin.
- Adam Lundgren as Vyacheslav Brazhnik, the senior turbine operator at Chernobyl.
- Karl Davies as Viktor Proskuryakov, a senior reactor control engineer trainee at Chernobyl.
- Donald Sumpter as Zharkov, a Pripyat executive committee member.
- Billy Postlethwaite as Boris Stolyarchuk, the senior unit #4 control engineer at Chernobyl.
- Joshua Leese as Igor Kirschenbaum, a senior turbine control engineer at Chernobyl.
- Nadia Clifford as Svetlana Zinchenko, a doctor treating Vasily Ignatenko and others with radiation sickness.
- Jamie Sives as Anatoly Sitnikov, the deputy chief operational engineer at Chernobyl sent to inspect the exploded core.
- Baltasar Breki Samper as Alexei Ananenko, one of the volunteers who drained water in Chernobyl's basement to prevent an explosion.
- Philip Barantini as Valeri Bezpalov, one of the volunteers who drained water in Chernobyl's basement to prevent an explosion.
- Oscar Giese as Boris Baranov, one of the volunteers who drained water in Chernobyl's basement to prevent an explosion.
- Douggie McMeekin as Aleksandr Yuvchenko, a senior engineer-mechanic on duty the night of the explosion.
- Natasha Radski as Russian News Reader.
- Jay Simpson as Valeriy Perevozchenko, the foreman in the reactor section.
- Michael Colgan as Mikhail Shchadov, Soviet Minister of Coal Industry.
- James Cosmo as a miner.
- Hilton McRae as Milan Kadnikov, the judge presiding over the trial of Dyatlov, Bryukhanov, and Fomin.
- Kieran O'Brien as Valery Khodemchuk, the night shift main circulating pump operator at Chernobyl.
- Alexej Manvelov as Garo, an Armenian soldier who accompanies Bacho and Pavel.
|No.||Title||Directed by||Written by||Original air date (EDT) [a]|| Viewers|
|1||"1:23:45"||Johan Renck||Craig Mazin||May 6, 2019(US) |
May 7, 2019 (UK)
|On the second anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster, Valery Legasov, chief of the commission investigating it, records tapes blaming engineer Anatoly Dyatlov and other superiors for the incident, before hiding the tapes and hanging himself (his death occurs the day after the second anniversary in real-life). Two years earlier in Pripyat, firefighter Vasily Ignatenko's pregnant wife Lyudmilla witnesses Reactor 4 of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant exploding (at 01:23:45). At Reactor 4's control room, Dyatlov dismisses evidence that their reactor core has exploded. He calls in firefighters and workers, and futilely orders subordinates to manually lower control rods and restore cooling before leaving his post. Multiple plant workers and firefighters, including Vasily, are subsequently exposed to acute radiation syndrome (ARS). Plant Director Bryukhanov, Chief Engineer Fomin and Dyatlov conclude that a hydrogen explosion caused leakage of contaminated vessel water, and the Pripyat Executive Committee elects to downplay the incident and blocks evacuation. Deputy chief operational engineer Sitnikov reports seeing nuclear graphite on the ground and the others reject this. As Dyatlov succumbs to ARS, they force Sitnikov to the roof to make a visual inspection, where he receives a lethal dose of radiation. Legasov is informed of an under control accident at Chernobyl and ordered to provide technical advice to the committee managing the response.|
|2||"Please Remain Calm"||Johan Renck||Craig Mazin||May 13, 2019(US) |
May 14, 2019 (UK)
|Seven hours after the explosion, Ulana Khomyuk detects a spike in radiation levels in Minsk. When her concerns are dismissed by local authorities, she sets out for Chernobyl, the likely source. At Pripyat's overloaded hospital, Lyudmilla finds that Vasily and the other ARS patients have been evacuated to Moscow. In Moscow, Legasov explains to Mikhail Gorbachev that the situation is more serious than reported and is sent to Chernobyl with a skeptical Boris Shcherbina. From a helicopter, Legasov points out graphite debris and a blue glow from ionizing radiation, indicating the core is exposed. Shcherbina confronts Bryukhanov and Fomin, who accuse Legasov of misinformation, but General Pikalov has high-range dosimeter readings that prove Legasov is correct. Legasov instructs the military to suppress the fire with sand and boron as an initial step but with risks of its own. As news of the incident spreads, Pripyat is finally evacuated. Upon arrival, Khomyuk warns Legasov and Shcherbina that a destructive steam explosion will occur if the molten core establishes contact with water in the flooded basement. A lethal mission to drain the water is authorized and plant workers Ananenko, Bezpalov, and Baranov volunteer.|
|3||"Open Wide, O Earth"||Johan Renck||Craig Mazin||May 20, 2019(US) |
May 21, 2019 (UK)
|The basement is successfully drained, but a nuclear meltdown has begun, threatening to contaminate the groundwater. Shcherbina and Legasov report to Gorbachev that a heat exchanger is needed under the plant, for which Mikhail Shchadov recruits from Tula coal miners, led by Glukhov, to excavate a tunnel in extremely adverse conditions. Shcherbina warns Legasov that they are under KGB surveillance. Legasov sends Khomyuk to a Moscow hospital, where she finds Dyatlov uncooperative but learns from dying Toptunov and Akimov that the reactor exploded after Akimov initiated an emergency shutdown, a scenario thought impossible. Bribing her way into the hospital and lying about her pregnancy, Lyudmilla is allowed to visit Vasily but disobeys orders by staying with her husband longer than instructed. During Khomyuk's visit to the hospital, she witnesses Vasily touching Lyudmilla. Realizing that Lyudmilla is pregnant, Khomyuk threatens to report everything to the committee and is arrested by KGB agents. She is imprisoned, but Legasov arranges her release. As Shcherbina and Legasov report to the Central Executive Committee their decontamination plans requiring the mass mobilization of liquidators, Lyudmilla stands among relatives of other deceased ARS victims as Vasily's body, sealed in a lead casket, is buried in concrete at a mass grave.|
|4||"The Happiness of All Mankind"||Johan Renck||Craig Mazin||May 27, 2019(US) |
May 28, 2019 (UK)
|Residents are evacuated from the wider Chernobyl Exclusion Zone and decontamination operations are underway. Civilian draftee Pavel is paired with Soviet–Afghan War veteran Bacho to patrol the Zone to shoot and dispose of abandoned animals due to radioactive contamination. Chernobyl liquidator commander General Nikolai Tarakanov deploys Lunokhod programme rovers to clear the plant's roof for a shelter. After a West German police robot almost instantly fails on the most irradiated level, Tarakanov is forced to cycle 3,828 liquidators to clear it by hand, allowed only 90 seconds each, once. Khomyuk investigates the Moscow archives and confronts a recovering Dyatlov, who knows the government is not interested in the truth. Meeting away from KGB bugs, Shcherbina and Legasov inform Khomyuk they must testify as experts in the trial of Dyatlov, Bryukhanov, and Fomin, and Legasov will address the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Khomyuk reveals an article about an identical incident at the Leningrad Nuclear Power Plant in 1975, suppressed by the KGB, and tells them Lyudmilla gave birth to a girl who soon died from radiation poisoning. Khomyuk urges Legasov to tell the IAEA the complete truth, while Shcherbina urges caution to avoid government retaliation.|
|5||"Vichnaya Pamyat"[b]||Johan Renck||Craig Mazin||June 3, 2019(US) |
June 4, 2019 (UK)
|Following Legasov's testimony to the IAEA in Vienna, in which he lies, Dyatlov, Bryukhanov, and Fomin are put on trial in the abandoned city of Chernobyl. Shcherbina is called first to give testimony, explaining the general workings of a nuclear power plant. Khomyuk and Legasov testify on the events leading up to the accident, based on interviews with people in the control room. Flashbacks show that due to a ten-hour delay in a safety test and Dyatlov's impatience to carry it out, the reactor stalled, then experienced a power spike. Akimov activated the emergency shutdown, but a design flaw in the control rods spiked the power to ten times the reactor's limit before it exploded. Legasov reveals the suppressed information about the Leningrad plant, admitting he lied in his previous testimony in Vienna. He is detained by the KGB and informed that his testimony will be suppressed in the state media; furthermore, he is forbidden to speak to anyone about Chernobyl, he will receive no credit for his role in containing the disaster, and he will never work again. The ending shows pictures and video of the real-life Legasov and other major figures, revealing their fates, as well as the ongoing aftermath of the accident. A producers' error erroneously states Legasov died on April 26, 1988, exactly two years after the disaster; in fact, he died one day after the two year anniversary on April 27, 1988. It ends with a statement that the show was dedicated to those who "suffered and sacrificed."|
Development and writingEdit
Writer Craig Mazin began researching for the project in 2014, by reading books and government reports from inside and outside the Soviet Union. Mazin also interviewed nuclear scientists to learn how a reactor works, and former Soviet citizens to gain a better idea of the culture in 1986. Mazin also read several first-person accounts in order to bring additional authenticity to the story. He explained, "When you're reading the personal stories of people who were there — people who lived near the plant, people who worked at the plant, people who were sent to Chernobyl as part of the effort to clean it up — in those individual accounts, that's really where the story came alive".
Mazin's interest in creating the series originated when he decided to write something that addressed "how we're struggling with the global war on the truth right now". Another inspiration is that he knew Chernobyl exploded, but he did not know why. He explained, "I didn't know why, and I thought there was this inexplicable gap in my knowledge ... So, I began reading about it, just out of this very dry, intellectual curiosity, and what I discovered was that, while the story of the explosion is fascinating, and we make it really clear exactly why and how it happened, what really grabbed me and held me were the incredible stories of the human beings who lived through it, and who suffered and sacrificed to save the people that they loved, to save their countrymen and to save a continent, and continued to do so, against odds that were startling and kept getting worse. I was so moved by it. It was like I had discovered a war that people just hadn't really depicted, and I became obsessed". Mazin said that "The lesson of Chernobyl isn't that modern nuclear power is dangerous. The lesson is that lying, arrogance, and suppression of criticism are dangerous".
In preparation for the miniseries, Mazin visited the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. Mazin made the decision in the early stages not to use Russian or Ukrainian accents, and instead, have the actors use their natural accents. Mazin explained, "We had an initial thought that we didn't want to do the 'Boris and Natasha' cliched accent because the Russian accent can turn comic very easily. At first, we thought that maybe we would have people do these sort of vaguely Eastern European accents - not really strong but noticeable. What we found very quickly is that actors will act accents. They will not act, they will act accents and we were losing everything about these people that we loved. Honestly, I think after maybe one or two auditions we said 'Ok, new rule. We're not doing that anymore'". Mazin also did not cast any American actors, as that could potentially pull the audience out of the story.
On July 26, 2017, it was announced that HBO and Sky had given a series order to Chernobyl. It was HBO's first co-production with Sky UK. The five-episode miniseries was written by Craig Mazin and directed by Johan Renck. Mazin also served as an executive producer alongside Carolyn Strauss and Jane Featherstone, with Chris Fry and Renck acting as co-executive producers. On March 11, 2019, it was announced that the miniseries would premiere on May 6, 2019. On June 4, 2019, Craig Mazin made the original scripts of all episodes available for downloading as PDFs (see External links below).
A companion podcast for the miniseries had new episodes published as each TV episode aired on HBO. The podcast featured conversations between Mazin and host Peter Sagal including discussions of where the show was as true as possible to historical events and where events were consolidated or modified as part of artistic license.
Simultaneously with the initial series announcement, it was confirmed that Jared Harris would star in the series. On March 19, 2018, it was announced that Stellan Skarsgård and Emily Watson had joined the main cast. In May 2018, it was announced that Paul Ritter, Jessie Buckley, Adrian Rawlins, and Con O'Neill also had joined the cast.
Principal photography began in April 2018 in Lithuania. Initial filming started on May 13, 2018, in Fabijoniškės, a residential district in Vilnius, Lithuania, which was used to portray the Ukrainian city of Pripyat, since the district maintained an authentic Soviet atmosphere. An area of densely built panel housing apartments served as a location for the evacuation scenes. Director Johan Renck heavily criticised the amount of diverse and eye-catching modern windows in the houses, but was not concerned about removing them in post-production. At the end of March, production moved to Visaginas, Lithuania, to shoot both the exterior and interior of the Ignalina Nuclear Power Plant, a decommissioned nuclear power station that is sometimes referred to as "Chernobyl's sister" due to its visual resemblance and the nuclear reactor design used at both Chernobyl and Ignalina (RBMK nuclear power reactor). In early June 2018, production moved to Ukraine to shoot minor final scenes. The filming of Chernobyl took 16 weeks.
The series was exhaustively researched, but some liberties were taken for dramatic purposes, such as Legasov being present at the trial. The epilogue acknowledges that the character of Ulana Khomyuk is fictional, a composite of multiple Soviet scientists. Chernobyl expert Adam Higginbotham points out in an interview that there was no need for scientists to "uncover the truth"; that "many nuclear scientists knew all along that there were problems with this reactor—the problems that led ultimately to an explosion and disaster". Higginbotham and others also say that the widely reported "Bridge of Death", used by Chernobyl spectators all of whom later died, is an urban legend, and Higginbotham has spoken with someone who was on the bridge. The dramatic helicopter crash actually occurred months later than shown.
The BBC takes issue with the number of nuclear fatalities, saying, "It is conclusive that around 5,000 cases of thyroid cancer — most of which were treated and cured — were caused by the contamination. Many suspect that the radiation has caused or will cause other cancers, but the evidence is patchy. Amid reports of other health problems — including birth defects — it still is not clear if any can be attributed to radiation".
According to The Christian Science Monitor correspondent Fred Weir, "Everybody [in Russia and Ukraine] seems to agree that the miniseries goes overboard with its characters, depicting Soviet officials and plant management as too evil and conniving". Russian documentary producer Oleg Voinov who made a film about the Chernobyl disaster said that Chernobyl is "wonderfully shot, professionally edited, and the special effects are great. But it doesn't come close to reflecting reality. [...] A lot of the facts presented are just not true". The New York Times reviewer Mike Hale criticized Chernobyl's "propensity toward Hollywood inflation — to show us things that didn't happen" and for taking "fictional license over the line into contrivance and melodrama". According to Hale, "Mazin puts Legasov on the witness stand at the trial and, in a stroke of pure fantasy, has him boldly denounce Soviet corner-cutting and secrecy, after which he's hauled into a back room by the KGB".
The series suggest that victims of radiation poisoning are radioactive themselves and dangerous to be around. In reality, once cleaned, victims are generally not themselves dangerous. The protective plastic screens around victims of Acute Radiation Syndrome (ARS) are used to protect the victims from other people due to their weaker immune system. Some nurses were worried to work in the victims' proximity and indeed soldiers had to carry the bodies after their death.[unreliable medical source?] When turbine hall employee Shashenok experienced mortally wounding fatal shrapnel from blast debris and entrained hot particles, he, and not the responding firefighter Vasily Ignatenko who died from ARS, needed specific burial arrangements; there is no evidence that Ignatenko or the 27 other first responders required burial containment. While Shashenok alone had to be buried beneath zinc/lead or concrete, this was to prevent potential ground contamination, and not for the safety of the cemetery-attending public. Lyudmila Ignatenko, wife of Vasily Ignatenko, suggests he required similar undertaking; Lyudmila, who was pregnant at the time but lied to the hospital staff to see her husband, suggests the radioactivity she had been exposed to around Vasily while in hospital had a life-threatening impact on her unborn child. Two months later she gave birth to her baby, who died hours after being born.
Leonid Bershidsky, writing for The Moscow Times, finds fault with some of the period details, writing "Some lapses were probably too costly to avoid even when the filmmakers knew about them, like modern plastic windows in Soviet buildings. But there's plenty more. Chernobyl is too far from Moscow to reach by helicopter ... Nor, of course, could Deputy Prime Minister Boris Shcherbina even imagine threatening to throw Valery Legasov, an esteemed member of the Soviet Academy of Sciences, off a helicopter — this was 1986, not 1936...". Writing in The New Yorker, Masha Gessen criticizes the series for depicting Soviet citizens "who appear to act out of fear of being shot. This is inaccurate: summary executions, or even delayed executions on orders of a single apparatchik, were not a feature of Soviet life after the nineteen-thirties." According to Gessen, it was the reality of this power relationship that the series most seriously failed to portray. For Gessen the scenes of scientists criticizing the system in confrontation with bureaucrats were "repetitive and ridiculous"—it would have been unthinkable. The defining condition of Soviet life was resignation.
Major General Nikolai Tarakanov, who headed the real "liquidators" in 1986, praised HBO for a "great job" in an interview with Russian state media, but stated many of the things that did not happen. For example, stray animals were shot, but not in the residential area and not in the way portrayed in the show; radiation levels were not hidden from the "liquidators"; he did not see any naked miners. Also, he points to some inconsistencies with Legasov, who did not take part in a major meeting portrayed in the series as he was elsewhere at the time. Plant engineer Oleksiy Breus told the BBC the miners "took off their clothes, but not like it was shown in the film, not right down to nothing".
Pioneering a then novel treatment for the most exposed ARS patients in 1986, then writing a peer reviewed response to the series in 2019, in the journal Cancer Letters, UCLA doctor Robert Gale took issue with the suggestion his patients were dangerous to visitors along with the portrayal of Soviet authorities as reluctant to seek outside help. "I was immediately invited to come to Moscow and shortly thereafter to bring three colleagues,” Gale writes. “In my experience dealing with nuclear accidents, this is rather unusual and indicates a desire to do everything possible to help the victims—throwing politics to the wind. And whilst in Moscow, we were free to expropriate supplies and equipment from many Russian medical centers." Gale says the accident was impossible to cover-up, as portrayed by HBO. "Anyone looking at the destroyed reactor building, mass of firefighting equipment, and personnel streaming into the reactor complex—the smoke from the fire clearly visible from Pripyat about 4 km away etc.—I cannot imagine anyone would try to cover this up. It would be like standing in lower Manhattan after destruction of the Twin Towers and pretending there was no problem." "All governments try to contain bad news of this type," notes Gale. "I see rather little difference between the initial U.S. government reaction to the Three Mile Island (TMI) accident, the initial Japan government reaction to the Fukushima-Daiichi accident, and the Soviet response to Chernobyl."
Families that lived in the nearby area at the time of the disaster, have criticized the series as provocative and politically motivated, giving a different view of the events and the aftermath, as well as the way the people reacted.
Chernobyl received widespread critical acclaim. On Rotten Tomatoes, it has a 96% approval rating with an average score of 9 out of 10, based on 76 reviews. The site's critical consensus reads, "Chernobyl rivets with a creeping dread that never dissipates, dramatizing a national tragedy with sterling craft and an intelligent dissection of institutional rot". On Metacritic, it has a weighted average score of 83 out of 100, based on 26 critics, indicating "universal acclaim". On IMDb, over 350,000 users gave the show an average rating of 9.5 stars out of 10, making it the fourth-highest rated TV show on the platform.
Reviewers from The Atlantic, The Washington Post, and BBC observed parallels to contemporary society by focusing on the power of information and how dishonest leaders can make mistakes beyond their comprehension. Sophie Gilbert of The Atlantic hailed the series as a "grim disquisition on the toll of devaluing the truth"; Hank Stuever of The Washington Post praised it for showcasing "what happens when lying is standard and authority is abused". Meera Syal praised Chernobyl as a "fiercely intelligent exposition of the human cost of state censorship. Would love to see similar exposé" of the Bhopal disaster. Aaron Giovannone writes critically of the series in Jacobin, stating that "even as we worry about the ongoing ecological crisis caused by capitalism, Chernobyl revels in the failure of the historical alternative to capitalism," which reinforces the status quo, offering us "no way out" of the crisis.
The miniseries was well-received by some critics and audience in Russia. Vladimir Medinsky, Russian culture minister, whose father was one of the Chernobyl liquidators, called the series “Masterfully made” and “filmed with great respect for ordinary people”. It was reported that Russian NTV television channel has been producing its own version of the Chernobyl story in which the CIA plays a key role in the disaster. However, the series in question has been in production since before HBO's miniseries and was not created in response to it. An apparent trailer for the series was uploaded to YouTube but was later deleted following negative reaction.
The Communist Party of Russia called for a libel lawsuit against Chernobyl’s writer, director and producers, describing the show as "disgusting". In a statement, party member Sergey Malinkovich spoke of the party's intentions to lobby TV regulator Roskomnadzor to request that it blocks local access to the series.
|1||"1:23:45"||May 6, 2019||0.2||0.756||N/A||N/A||N/A||N/A|
|2||"Please Remain Calm"||May 13, 2019||0.3||1.004||0.2||0.716||0.5||1.721|
|3||"Open Wide, O Earth"||May 20, 2019||0.3||1.063||0.2||0.727||0.5||1.791|
|4||"The Happiness of All Mankind"||May 27, 2019||0.3||1.193||0.3||0.809||0.6||2.003|
|5||"Vichnaya Pamyat"||June 3, 2019||0.3||1.089||0.3||0.974||0.6||2.064|
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