`Tank Man' blurs history


Tonight's rambling episode of Frontline asserts that from China's teeming citizenry, one man's brief, thwarted act of defiance actually changed the world.

"The Tank Man," as he is called in lieu of a confirmed identity, was the Beijing obstructionist who stood in the way of a column of tanks in Tiananmen Square nearly 17 years ago.

This episode (10 p.m.-11:30 p.m., MPT, Channels 22, 67), produced by the provocative filmmaker Antony Thomas, argues that although the Tank Man's gesture did not lead to his government's collapse after soldiers fired on peaceful protesters, it inspired reformers everywhere to challenge totalitarian oppressors.

Thomas' ambitious, sprawling film knows few bounds as it maps upheaval from Mongolia to Hong Kong and charts a rural-to-urban migration of hundreds of millions of job-seekers.

Along the way, the program hustles to explain dismal labor conditions, Internet privacy and rivalries among journalists.

What is billed as a story of one man becomes a catchall format for every useful bit of information about China's commitment to economic modernization and resistance to political reform.

All this rests on the shoulders of an anonymous figure, and while there are theories about who he may have been, the report named for him gives up the ghost too quickly.

By the end, viewers will remain confused about whether his act was premeditated or spontaneous, whether the plainclothes people who carried him away were protectors or persecutors, and, of course, whether the Tank Man is dead or alive.

Ultimately, "The Tank Man" reintroduces a frustratingly faceless enigma and teases a viewer with the hope of a resolution that never arrives.

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