If you’re of a certain age, the images from Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in the spring of 1989 are tattooed on your brain. Student protesters, inspired by the era of glasnost in the Soviet Union, demanding a say in China’s version of a Communist government. Then, with a swiftness that’s as frightening as anything we’ve seen, the government crushed the seven-week-long protest, killing thousands of unarmed, peaceful protesters. But do you know what led up to all this? A new documentary details the seven weeks via new footage, leaked government documents and interviews with former leaders of the movement. Read on for more…

TIANANMEN: THE PEOPLE VERSUS THE PARTY: STREAM IT OR SKIP IT?

The Gist: If you were around during the time of the student democracy protests in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in the spring of 1989, much of what you likely saw was news coverage of the students peacefully protesting for a voice in China’s Communist government, led at the time by chairman Deng Xiaoping. Then you saw Deng’s government enforce martial law, crushing the movement by firing on the unarmed protesters, killing thousands. The image of a lone man confronting a line of tanks has become a defining image of the crackdown to this day, 30 years later.

But the events and decision-making that set this tragic event in motion were kept in the dark, to the point where Chinese citizens of a certain age don’t even know that this protest even happened, despite the fact that it was in the country’s recent past. Tiananmen: The People Versus The Party is a new documentary that reveals much of that decision making, giving a more complete picture of how the protests started, who in the government supported them and who wanted them crushed, and exactly how Deng, who had been transitioned to a largely ceremonial position by the time the protests started, regained power and crushed the protest, altering the course of Chinese history.

Director and co-writer Ian MacMillan (Civilizations) combines never-before-seen home video footage of the protests with leaked minutes from Politburo and other governmental meetings that show that there was a lot of discord within the government while these protests were happening. Also included are interviews with the co-authors of The Tiananmen Papers, which disclosed these minutes as well as student leaders like Shen Tong, Wuer Kaixi, Wang Dan, Rose Tang, Zhang Jian (who died in April) and others.

What Movies Will It Remind You Of?: Documentaries that bust myths and common knowledge about historical events are always fascinating to watch; there isn’t one documentary that Tiananmen reminds us of, but it’s one of the best of this genre.

Performance Worth Watching: Wuer Kaixi displays the most compelling combination of regret, defiance, and wistfulness about the protests that he helped lead during those seven weeks in 1989. He definitely seems to regret stepping away, knowing what the government was capable of, before the tanks started rolling in on June 4.

Memorable Dialogue: After the government agreed to meet with the student leaders, but then cut off the promised live broadcast, Wang Dan said “From that day, the government was the government, the people were the people, and the government was no longer for the people.”

Photo: PBS

Our Take: MacMillan takes a meticulous, close to day-by-day look at the events during the seven weeks leading up to the June 4 invasion of Tiananmen Square by China’s ironically-named People’s Liberation Army, giving the turning points that set these events in motion. And despite the 111-minute runtime, we found ourselves engaged in the drama, despite knowing how it was going to end. And, as the best of this kind of genre usually does, we learned a lot about an event we thought we already knew a lot about.

For instance, the film opens with the iconic image of that mysterious man confronting those tanks, and it more or less ends with that image, as well. The reason why the film ends with that image, though, is that that lone man — who still has not been identified to this day — confronted the tanks as they left the square, having already suppressed the protest, the soldiers shooting live bullets at the unarmed students and the tanks crushing bodies under their tracks. News coverage back then and the mists have time have conflated the attack with this protester, but most of the violence took place overnight, and the protesters finally left the square by that time.

The documentary does a fine job of showing just who these students were, the fact that these protests mobilized the rank-and-file of Beijing as well as students from around China, and damn near actually accomplished what it set out to do. But it also showed just how efficiently brutal the Chinese government was back then, and how this set the course for the country becoming a 21st century superpower, despite still being under totalitarian Communist rule.

Our Call: STREAM IT. Tiananmen: The People Versus The Party is a worthwhile retelling of a seismic world event from our recent past, and shows what can happen when a government has too much power over its citizens.

Joel Keller (@joelkeller) writes about food, entertainment, parenting and tech, but he doesn’t kid himself: he’s a TV junkie. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, Slate, Salon, VanityFair.com, Playboy.com, Fast Company’s Co.Create and elsewhere.