Chimerica: Picture-perfect gripping drama of fake news

Review: Lucy Kirkwood’s miniseries is an artful exploration of the difference between image and meaning

Seeing is believing... Alessandro Nivola as Lee Berger. Photograph: C4/Playground

Seeing is believing... Alessandro Nivola as Lee Berger. Photograph: C4/Playground

 

We’re introduced to photojournalist Lee Berger (Alessandro Nivola) through two of his pictures, taken almost 30 years apart. The first was almost an accident, when a young Lee, distracted by shouting outside his hotel in Beijing, in 1989, takes the iconic photograph of Tank Man, a slim figure with shopping bags confronting a phalanx of armoured vehicles.

The second is taken with more callous intention, during the devastation of Syria in 2016, when a grizzled Lee crouches close to capture the grief of a woman holding her dead child as soldiers approach.

The first picture makes his career. The second one, we discover, may end it.

The title of Lucy Kirkwood’s 2013 play, Chimerica (Channel 4, Wednesday, 9pm) now a gripping miniseries, splices China and America together to address the surprisingly compatible cultures of two superpowers. Berger, we learn, is guilty of some splicing of his own, determined to get the shot he wanted.

But Kirkwood’s picture is already perfectly framed, shrewdly absorbing Chinese-American relations in the Trump era into her compelling new work.

“You made everyone look dirty right at the moment when we have to be immaculate,” Lee’s editor Sam (F. Murray Abraham, people!) admonishes Lee when discovered. “You played right into his tiny hands.”

That Lee and his colleague Mel (the great Cherry Jones) go searching for the original Tank Man, spurred by a tip from his old Beijing source, Zhang Lin (an excellent Terry Chen) that the protestor now lives in New York, is almost a McGuffin. Kirkwood’s series is potently aware of the difference between image and deed: “What did he do?” Zhang, a widowed Tiananmen protestor, asks contemptuously of Tank Man. “He stood in a road. My wife sat there for two months.”

In today’s China that image is nowhere, though, the internet carefully policed, and the hope of democracy all but forgotten. Meanwhile, in America, during the 2016 election campaign, the media is vilified, images are everywhere – and the hope of democracy is all but forgotten.

Kirkwood’s writing is artful, building up vivid characters in quick strokes and delicious dialogue. Take Zhang’s quick identification of Tank Man, or Wang Peng Fei, who secured his place in art school with a perfect copy of Van Gogh’s Sunflowers: “Nice guy,” he adds, as a softening afterthought. If he’s anything like this fascinating display of humanity, I can’t wait to meet him.

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