There's no better time, then, for an up-to-date adaptation of Lucy Kirkwood’s famous play Chimerica, a fictionalised investigation into the whereabouts of the globally recognised ‘Tank Man’.
‘The Tank Man’ is one of the most famous images of all time, showing a Chinese student standing in front of tank in Tiananmen Square in 1989 – shortly after a government-sanctioned massacre. The Tank Man is carrying shopping bags, and refuses to move.
In Chimerica, this image is snapped by the young, up-and-coming photo-journalist Lee Berger (Ty Simpkins) from the curtains of a nearby hotel room. His career is made.
27 years later in 2016, an older Berger (Alessandro Nivola) endures Syrian war-zones to try and repeat his initial success. It’s made him bitter and desperate and selfish – traits that Alessandro Nivola sweats from his performance, but not without a lens flare glint of sympathy.
Young Lee Berger (Ty Simpkins) captures the photo that'll make his career
Chimerica's sharp blend of reality and narrative is unsettling. Director Michael Keillor unravels this further by splicing together actual footage of the Tiananmen Square massacre with Kirkwood's dramatisation. It’s an uncomfortable conflict of images, one that brings the hard reality through.
In a good judgement from Kirkwood, she rewrote her original play to accommodate the rise of Donald Trump in 2016 – in an enviable time when many assumed he wouldn’t win (was it really only three years ago?). There’s a greater pressure on journalists to tell the truth, palpably felt in the writing as Lee straddles that difficult line between cold truth and lies to tell the truth.
Lee returns to China to report on the reaction to Trump’s candidacy, which is overwhelmingly positive. He gets drunk with an old friend, Zhang (Terry Chen), who was among the survivors of Tiananmen Square and knows some facts about the Tank Man. The series grows into an investigation: where and who is the Tank Man?
An older Lee Berger (Alessandro Nivolo) finds out more about the Tank Man from old friend Zhang (Terry Chen)
Is Chimerica attempting to answer the mystery? It’s not entirely clear. As the first episode stands, the story is more of a vehicle to show the age we’re living in. Lots of wheels are turning, especially for authoritarian politics and post-truth journalism, but the writing doesn't drag on and never wastes a minute pondering arduous political theory.
Instead, it’s told with a furious, intelligent, and wordy ferocity – as if Aaron Sorkin wrote a Bond movie (not a bad idea). And unlike a lot of political dramas, it’s actually accessible: making every viewer an expert in totalitarianism and in accessing YouTube through an encrypted server.
Chimerica is a high-speed image burst through contemporary politics – a strong reminder that we’re living in troubled times and even the smallest acts of defiance really matter. They might inspire a generation, like the as-yet-unfound Tank Man did.
Chimerica continues Wednesdays at 9pm on Channel 4
|What||Chimerica, Channel 4 review|
17 Apr 19 – 16 Apr 20, 9:00 PM – 10:00 PM