HBO’s Chernobyl is lauded critically. But some things aren’t accurate to the real-life story of the power plant. While some are historical fact.
According to IMDB’s rating system, HBO and Sky UK’s Chernobyl is the highest-rated TV show of all time. While that might be arguable, there’s no denying that the five-part series has been a huge hit and is an incredibly-made piece of episodic storytelling.
From the horrific reality of what happened to the disastrous outcomes that are still being felt today, Chernobyl was always going to make an impact when it was released. But to create a show like this, a few things in the series, however, do need to be taken with a pinch of salt, as is always the way with a show that tells a historical story. So we wanted to look into the realities of the Chernobyl disaster to see what artistic license needed to be taken by writer Craig Mazin and director Johan Renck – something they’re incredibly honest about with Mazin releasing an episode-by-episode podcast discussing accuracies of the series.
So with that in mind, here are a few things that are accurate to the real-life events and a few that aren’t.
Accurate: The Suffering
There are no two ways about it when talking about the Chernobyl disaster; many, many people were affected and suffered as a result of the power plant’s explosion. This is true of the first people on the scene who bore the brunt of the radioactivity of the fire in the core and the people who lived in the city of Pripyat, Ukraine who had health complications as a result of the explosion.
The suffering felt by these people – as well as the thousands of people who were brought in to deal with the aftermath of the disaster – was the series’ driving force, making it the intense storytelling that it was.
Not Accurate: Soviet Threats
Everyone doing their jobs only because they were being threatened with being shot isn’t exactly how things were in the 1980s. A recent article in the New Yorker by Masha Gessen explains that by and large, at the time the people within the Soviet Union Soviet did what they were told without needing to be threatened with guns or any punishment to do so.
The idea that Chernobyl puts forward – one of the Soviets calling each other Comrade every five seconds and only doing as they’re told from fear of death, is much more the Soviet Union from the 1930s and not the latest 80s.
Accurate: The Cover-Up
While it’s probably unknown exactly to what extent members of the government knew about the faults with the Chernobyl Power Plant, the series does a great job of telling the dramatic story of a cover-up being exposed and showing how the Soviet version of Bureaucracy worked in the 1980s with the shift of blame in constant motion.
The final episode of Chernobyl rests almost entirely on this idea, as Valery Legasov debates whether to blow the lid on what really happened in the disaster, something that ultimately lands him in hot water and sees him ostracised from the life he led before.
Not Accurate: The Trial
According to accounts, Valery Legasov wasn’t actually at the trial that was put on by the state, he instead gave his accounts ahead of time. Writer Craig Mazin said on the Chernobyl podcast that the episode’s trial was inspired by factual circumstances, and presented a cut down version of what actually happened.
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The real trial went on for weeks and involved a lot of people who weren’t depicted in the series so wouldn’t have made any sense to the audience.
Accurate: Helicopter Crash
In an early scene with Jared Harris’ Valery Legasov, he tells his helicopter pilot not to fly over the exposed core that at this point, was still on fire. He says that the radioactivity might interfere with the helicopter’s controls and it would certainly affect everyone on board.
Later on, as helicopters are dropping sand on the fire to try and smother it, one crashes the ground killing everyone inside. While initially unclear whether this was because of the radioactivity, you can see if you look closely that it in fact hit a crane, something that did actually happen about six months after the explosion.
Not Accurate: Ulana Khomyuk
The most obvious inaccuracy in Chernobyl is Emily Watson’s character of Ulana Khomyuk. The final episode epilogue explains that the character was created for the show, representing the dozens of scientists who helped investigate the crisis as it unfolded, alongside Legasov.
This is the kind of artistic license that many storytellers need to take for the sake of time, budget and narrative direction. If you had a cast of another few dozen people – all of which had a fairly substantial impact on the real events of the disaster, the production would have been so much bigger and a lot more confusing to follow.
Accurate: 1980s Soviet Visuals
The series has been widely applauded for the representation of the culture of the Soviet Union as it was at the time of the disaster. The production designers clearly did a lot of research to make sure they were presenting visuals correctly and this makes for a really beautifully put together aesthetic.
From the clothes and set decorations to the weapons and design of the plant itself, there’s a feeling of authenticity about the series. There’s a certain stereotype of the Soviets, especially in western TV, and it would have been easy to include this in the show but they’re largely left out of Chernobyl.
Not Accurate: The Accents
It’s an obvious one but don’t be surprised if you go to Ukraine and people aren’t speaking with any number of regional British accents. It’s obviously a decision made by the filmmakers to have all the actors speaking with their own accents in Chernobyl.
Being a HBO and Sky UK production, casting only Russian or Ukrainian actors wasn’t going to be an option and putting on terrible accents would have been a sure fire way to turn some audience members off and offending plenty of people. This does however mean that there is a mish-mash of accents throughout, from northern to Irish, non-regional and even Stellan Skarsgård’s already difficult to place pseudo-Swedish accent.
Accurate: The Divers
By several accounts, the three divers that needed to submerge themselves in water beneath the power plant died just a few weeks after doing so. And initially the series was written with that in mind – it certainly ramps up the drama of these divers’ fates. But writer Craig Mazin explained in an article with Vox that just before shooting, he found out that two of them are still alive today.
This is a great example of how a narrative like this needs to be put together because it would have been much easier to pretend he hadn’t found out they were still alive and keep the drama. As a writer, he was intent on presenting the most truthful story he could.
Not Accurate: Contagious Radiation
In several episodes, we see several of the first responders in the hospital behind plastic sheeting and it’s insinuated that they were in order to make sure others weren’t affected by their radioactivity.
The reality of it however is that once they’d have had their clothes removed and been washed down – as they would have been entering the hospital, the radioactivity is internal. The person is poisoned, not infected and therefore it’s not something that could have been ‘caught’ like a virus by visitors. They would in fact have been behind plastic sheeting because the poisoning would have weakened their immune systems. They’re quarantined to stop them from getting sicker – not the other way around.