Staring American actor Alessandro Nivola, Chimerica is a four-part television adaptation by Lucy Kirkwood of her own multi-award winning play following the life of fictional war photographer Lee Berger, whose life begins to unravel after his latest Pulitzer-worthy shot is revealed to be a fake.
We first meet Berger as a young man (played by Ty Simpkins) covering the infamous protests thirty years ago in China’s Tiananmen Square, where he photographs an unidentified figure stood in front of the advancing tanks the morning after the Chinese military opened fire on its own people to end the anti-government protests.
This was a real photograph taken by photojournalist Jeff Widener and the unknown man it depicted was nicknamed “tank man” by the world – there were others who stood in front of the tanks, of course, but he was the only one to be photographed.If you’ve seen the utterly arresting image, then you understand the impact it had on the world. It was not only the most striking image to come out of the protests, it served as a reminder of the personal responsibility that we all bear to stand up to evil in all its many forms.
Back in the fictional world of Chimerica, we reunite with Berger many years later in 2016 as he secures another, equally heart-stopping shot – and front page of the New York daily newspaper at which he works – of a soldier in Syria, his gun held to a woman’s head as she sits in the aftermath of an explosion, holding her bloodied son.
His editor (played by the incomparable F. Murray Abraham) is understandably delighted, there’s talk of a Pulitzer prize and on the flight to his next assignment, he meets and hooks up with British marketing executive Tess (played by Sophie Okonedo). Berger seems on top of the world so, naturally, this is the point at which everything starts tumbling down around his ears.
This is 2016 and the campaign for the US Presidency is in full swing, complete with ever-present fake news rhetoric as then-candidate Trump builds a successful bid for the top job in American politics out of a carpet of lies, groundless assertions, grandiose claims and attacks on the free press to the extent that NYU professor Jay Rosen recently described it as a “hate movement” against the media.
A student journalist forces Berger to admit that the much-lauded Syrian photograph was doctored – and the narrative becomes about the possibility of redemption. Does the end – getting the war in Syria front page coverage – justify the means?
How does a journalist – or any professional whose business is the provision of accurate information – come back from that kind of breach of trust? How does he regain the trust of the public and his colleagues?
This is a question that the news media as a whole has been grappling with on a daily basis over the last few years as it has become increasingly self-evident that the public no longer trusts traditional journalism, which makes it difficult – if not impossible – for reporters to successfully do their jobs in a way that has real impact.
Coupled with an administration that constantly lies to the press, subverting our most ingrained instincts – to contact the White House’s press office for a statement on its actions and to accept that statement as authoritative truth, for example – journalism has reached a crisis point, only made worse by a widespread lack of funding as audiences become increasingly reluctant to pay for news they consume.
Berger’s solution to his own problem is to set off on a search for “tank man”, whose identity has long been the subject of rumors and speculation, and his trips to Beijing bring him back in touch with an old friend who was a protester in the square and whose wife was killed in the massacre.
In the scenes set in China, we see erasure of history at every turn, exemplified by a waitress who doesn’t know that anything even happened in Tiananmen Square, whose knowledge of current affairs is severely limited because the people of her country only have access to government-approved websites.
Meanwhile, Tess informs him that their relationship is strictly a “work thing”, and that she really doesn’t understand the ethical and moral consequences – or sheer scale – of his choice to doctor the photograph.
Described by The Guardian newspaper as “strikingly intelligent”, Chimerica is explores big ideas without sacrificing either plot or character as it delves through layers of deception, delusion and misunderstandings. It acknowledges the fundamental truth that the personal is political and vice versa, exploring the lies that we tell and the untruths that we accept because society needs us to in order to keep going.
You can watch Chimerica for free online with Channel Four’s on-demand streaming service All4.