TV Series Review: 'Chimerica': What Happened to 'Tank Man'?

An engrossing series on the Tiananmen Square Massacre


June 4 represents the anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) massacre of democracy protesters on and around Tiananmen Square in Beijing. Thirty-four years after the 1989 mass killings, the world still doesn't know the identity of the man dubbed “Tank Man,” who stood in front of a column of tanks, then left the scene of the crime. Hopefully, the CCP will never know either, for his sake.

Considering how iconic the faceless picture of Tank Man has become, securing an exclusive interview would be quite a coup. However, it could be very dangerous for Tank Man and perhaps also for the reporter who scores the scoop. Nevertheless, disgraced photojournalist Lee Berger needs to land that story to repair his tarnished reputation in Lucy Kirkwood’s four-part screenplay “Chimerica,” which she adapted from her own fictional stage play.

Photojournalist Lee Berger (Alessandro Nivola), in "Chimerica." (Playground Entertainment)
Photojournalist Lee Berger (Alessandro Nivola), in "Chimerica." (Playground Entertainment)

As a young, inexperienced photographer, Berger (Alessandro Nivola) happened to lean out his hotel window and snap one of the photos documenting the Tank Man’s solitary act of defiance. He also successfully smuggled the negative out of the country, despite the efforts of the Beijing police, who had suddenly appeared to search his room. That picture helped make the career Berger will jeopardize, in the first act, by photoshopping a front-page picture of Syrian war atrocities.

Berger’s Twitter-obsessed paper, The New York Courier (transparently modeled on The New York Times), dumps him after a suitable public shaming. Yet, his frequent reporter collaborator, Mel Kincaid (Cherry Jones), still stands by him personally, and his old editor, Frank Sams (F. Murray Abraham), will sometimes take his calls. They reluctantly agree to work with him on his proposed “Tank Man” story after work hours, but their top priority is the 2016 presidential election. It might be more accurate to say they are devoting their efforts to help elect Hillary Clinton, which they hardly even deny among themselves.

Finding Tank Man

Berger has one lead, a name supplied by his old friend and fixer in Beijing, Zhang Lin (Terry Chen). Lin was one of the student protesters, but he gave up politics after his beloved fiancée Liuli (Katie Leung, frequently seen in flashbacks) was fatally shot by soldiers clearing Tiananmen Square. Tragically, history will be somewhat of a repeat for Lin when his neighbor Joy (Naomi Yang), a human rights attorney he not so-secretly carries a torch for, is also arrested and held incommunicado by the CCP regime.

“Chimerica” is one of the few TV or streaming series that references the Tiananmen Square Massacre to any substantial degree. There was the “Child of Light” episode of “MacGyver” in late 1989 (the year of the mass killings), the two-part “Touched by an Angel” episode “Spirit of Liberty Moon” in the late 1990s, and that's about it. To her credit, Kirkwood takes the events seriously, depicting all the brutality and confusion experienced by the student protesters in 1989.

Frank Sams (F. Murray Abraham, L) and Lee Berger (Alessandro Nivola), in "Chimerica." (Playground Entertainment)
Frank Sams (F. Murray Abraham, L) and Lee Berger (Alessandro Nivola), in "Chimerica." (Playground Entertainment)

However, when updating the 2006 drama for the screen, Kirkwood added some sharply trenchant media criticism. Either deliberately or inadvertently, the “Chimerica” of 2019 portrays the pressrooms of major legacy media organizations as overtly politicized and overwhelmingly biased to the left. It also boldly incorporates the now largely forgotten Bill Clinton Chinese fundraising scandal as a major subplot. Every major character in “Chimerica” probably votes against Trump, but it would be a highly uncomfortable viewing experience for the Clintons.

There is also plenty in “Chimerica” that Xi Jinping wouldn't want the world to see either, including state-sponsored torture, internet censorship known as the “Great Fire Wall,” and ominous midnight door-knocks from the secret police. Kirkwood also shows viewers the spectacle of Berger’s potential romantic interest, Tessa Kendrick (Sophie Okonedo), a management consultant, strategizing ways for her clients to sell their souls in exchange for access to the Chinese market. Plus, there are extended flashbacks to the massacre, vividly recreated by series director Michael Keillor.

Nivola is solid as the disillusioned Berger and he shares a good deal of wryly amusing banter with Jones, as the cynical Kincaid. Yet, Chen really outshines them both as Lin, who ultimately emerges as the true protagonist of “Chimerica.” Leung and Yang both add a great deal of poignancy as Liuli and Joy, while Oscar-winner Abraham out-snarks everyone as the acerbic Sams.

For a thriller, “Chimerica” presents a remarkably complex and perceptive analysis of the CCP’s ruthless conduct domestically and abroad. The title is a reference to a term economic historian Niall Ferguson developed with economist Moritz Schularick to ironically describe the intertwining of the U.S. and Chinese economies. It's rather fitting, because Kirkwood’s characters are constantly faced with choices between dirty money and human rights.

Very highly recommended, especially on the anniversary weekend of the Tiananmen Square Massacre.

"Chimerica" tells the story of the search for Tank Man during the Tiananmen Square Massacre in 1989. (Playground Entertainment)
"Chimerica" tells the story of the search for Tank Man during the Tiananmen Square Massacre in 1989. (Playground Entertainment)
“Chimerica” now streams on the Topic network.
In English with some subtitles in Mandarin.
‘Chimerica’ Cast: Alessandro Nuvola, Cherry Jones, F. Murray Abraham, Sophie Okonedo, Terry Chen Director: Michael Keillor Running Time: 4 episodes MPAA Rating: TV-14 Release Date: April 17, 2019 Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Joe Bendel writes about independent film and lives in New York. To read his most recent articles, visit
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