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HBO's 'Chernobyl' Is A Dramatization Of 1986 Nuclear Accident


One of the worst nuclear power plant accidents in history could have actually been an even bigger disaster. That is the message that echoes through HBO's five-part miniseries "Chernobyl." It describes how a few Soviet scientists and party officials were up against misinformation and propaganda in 1986 as they were dealing with an explosion at the plant that eventually spewed radioactive material across Ukraine, across Russia and as far as Western Europe. Jared Harris plays a scientist who led the response team and later made cassette tapes about what really happened.


JARED HARRIS: (As Valery Legasov) What is the cost of lies? It's not that we'll mistake them for the truth. The real danger is that if we hear enough lies, then we no longer recognize the truth at all.

GREENE: And here to chat about the new HBO miniseries, which debuts today, is NPR's TV critic Eric Deggans. Hey, Eric.


GREENE: This is an extraordinary story. I mean, I remember going to Ukraine and near Chernobyl on the 25th anniversary of the disaster. And there are still people there who remember it vividly - like, the actual emergency workers who rushed to that fire, not even realizing that there was a risk of radiation. I mean, is...


GREENE: Are those the kinds of moments we're seeing in the show?

DEGGANS: Oh, very much so. Now, we should bear in mind this is a dramatization, not a documentary. So they've done a really great job depicting the emergency and the confusion that resulted from this explosion at the Chernobyl plant. And from the beginning - you know, this miniseries focuses on a government that runs on propaganda and the politics of these Soviet leaders who were slow to admit what had happened. They were slow to accept the scale of the disaster. And they were slow to bring together resources to repair the plant and save people.

So Jared Harris's character - at first, he's got to fight these party leaders and the plant managers who were trying to downplay the emergency and shift blame. And because the scientists on the scene couldn't even imagine how a nuclear reactor core would explode, they're shown ignoring obvious evidence that that was what had happened. Here's a clip.


HARRIS: (As Valery Legasov) That means the core is open - means the fire we're watching with our own eyes is giving off nearly twice the radiation released by the bomb in Hiroshima. And that's every single hour, hour after hour. Twenty hours since the explosion, so 40 bombs' worth by now - 48 more tomorrow. And it will not stop.

GREENE: In real life, one of the things happening here was the Soviet government just didn't want to admit that there could be flaws in their nuclear program - right? - that they might be inferior to the United States or Europe.

DEGGANS: Exactly. And the miniseries shows that, as well. And it has this deeper message. It sort of asks, you know, how does a government that's circulating state-controlled news, which the public doesn't necessarily trust - how does it handle an emergency that could poison half the planet if they don't really face the facts of it? It's this amped-up version of the debate that we have now about issues like global warming and our inability to agree on facts apart from political spin.

We've got another scene here with Emily Watson, who plays another crusading scientist. And she's trying to convince a party official to evacuate a city near the Chernobyl plant after the explosion. Let's check that out.


EMILY WATSON: (As Ulana Khomyuk) I know that the core is either partially or completely exposed...

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Whatever that means.

WATSON: (As Ulana Khomyuk) ...And that if you don't immediately issue iodine tablets and then evacuate the city, hundreds of thousands of people are going to get cancer, and God knows how many more will die.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) I've been assured there is no problem.

WATSON: (As Ulana Khomyuk) I'm telling you that there is.

DEGGANS: You know, ultimately, the mystery at the heart of this miniseries is the scientists trying to figure out why the reactor exploded. But it also shows how government that's used to ignoring or changing facts can struggle when a disaster comes up that can only be controlled by accepting a truth that might be painful or embarrassing.

GREENE: All right. That's "Chernobyl," the new HBO miniseries talking with NPR TV critic Eric Deggans. Thanks, Eric.

DEGGANS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eric Deggans is NPR's first full-time TV critic.