More than three decades later, the fallout from the worst nuclear accident in history lingers.
The HBO miniseries “Chernobyl” is a dramatic exploration of the devastating explosions that shook Soviet Ukraine’s now-abandoned town of Pripyat on April 26, 1986. The infamous accident caused shockwaves, literal and figurative, around the world.
The series, written and created by New York native Craig Mazin, premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival on the 33rd anniversary of the disaster.
“Chernobyl” follows Jared Harris, Stellan Skarsgard, and Emily Watson, the trio investigating the disaster, and is bookended by the series slogan: “What is the cost of lies?”
“It is a story about what happens when we ignore the truth, and we ignore facts, and we ignore expertise, and we ignore wisdom, and replace it instead with whatever narrative is most convenient for us,” Mazin told the Daily News. “You can do this for a while. For a while. But the truth will remain the truth. The truth doesn’t need us to believe in it, and eventually, it will make itself known.”
A significant aim of the series was “to tell the stories of these people who have been buried by the history of it, whose sacrifices weren’t known to us,” said Harris, who plays Valery Alekseyevich Legasov.
Although Mazin began work on “Chernobyl” nearly five years ago, today’s political climate — colored by the resurgence of Russian aggression toward Ukraine and the west — gave him a particular sense of urgency. The parallels between today’s tension between Russia and Ukraine as well as the threat posed by climate change are not lost those involved in the production.
“Chernobyl” doesn’t seek to settle the ongoing disputes about the number of casualties, both direct and indirect — which range from a United Nations estimate of 4,000 to Greenpeace’s tally of 90,000. Instead, it seeks to honor the fallen, the survivors, the scientists-turned-investigators, those who helped to curb the effects of the tragedy and everyone still affected by it.
Clinical psychologist Dr. Janina Scarlet was nearly 3 years old and in one of the fallout zones about 180 miles away from the blast. The Soviet government, she tells The News, didn’t notify the public of the severity for at least two weeks. So people continued “drinking water, eating raw fruit, and unfortunately, all of it was poisoned.”
Scarlet herself has long suffered the effects of radiation poisoning. She grew up with a compromised immune system that, on several occasions, landed her in the hospital for colds and nosebleeds that refused to clot.
Scarlet, who emigrated with her family to the U.S. at age 12, had to abandon New York — her home of 15 years — for San Diego because her intense migraines are affected by weather changes. When they intensify, her migraines can cause seizures.
Skarsgard plays Boris Shcherbina, an official in the Soviet government. The frequent Lars von Trier collaborator, “Mamma Mia,” and Marvel Cinematic Universe alum acknowledges the weight of this project, which he says is “not purely there for the benefit of company shareholders or for pure entertainment, but … actually has something that is of vital importance to us today. What we’re doing to this Earth is frightening, and we’re running out of time.”
Watson’s composite character, Ulana Khomyuk, is a tribute to the real-life scientists who helped with the investigation. She offered a similar call to arms, telling The News, “Truth has become fluid. We are facing a scientific crisis, now, that lack of political will is not allowing us to face up to it. And we could be facing utterly devastating consequences. … The life of our species is hanging in the balance.”
“Chernobyl” is Renck’s first experience in nonfiction, but he was immediately attracted to the script.
“I’m drawn to some hopelessness, mixed with sort of the beauty of humanity, mixed with the horrendousness of humanity, mixed with the melancholy,” he said. “You know I’m Scandinavian, I’m from Sweden originally, I like the dark stuff. That’s the way it is for me.”
The responsibility that comes with telling the story is not lost on Renck. “There’s no one in Ukraine whose identity is not partly influenced by Chernobyl today, no one,” he said. “To do this just, you cannot cut any corners anywhere.”
Even 33 years on, Chernobyl remains a sensitive subject for those who lived through it.
“It took me until (age) 31 to be able to talk about Chernobyl and to be able to discuss what happened to me and what happened to some other people,” Scarlet said. “It’s something that has been such a painful part of my life. … Now it’s gotten easier, it’s still hard to read about it, to watch documentaries about it, so I spent a good portion of my childhood not knowing if I would make it until adulthood, so it’s still hard.”
Scarlet hopes those who remain detached from the impact of Chernobyl and its legacy will be sensitive to those still coming to terms with it. “This is not just one event that occurred in the distant past. This is something that is still prevalent.”