The BBC’s resident agent provocateur, Adam Curtis, having created a virtually new genre of essay documentary with “The Century of the Self” and “The Power of Nightmares,” runs into intellectual cul-de-sacs with “The Trap: What Happened to Our Dream of Freedom,” which seeks to examine the flawed nature of Western political freedom in the nuclear and terror age. Extraordinarily stimulating yet frustratingly unable to press its own case for liberty, the pic will extend Curtis’ passionate following primarily through fests and ancillary, though the usual issues with rights clearance for film clips and music cues will limit theatrical exposure.
No less than his previous work, Curtis’ thesis this time is likely to stop a thoughtful viewer’s mind in its tracks. “Nightmares” made the case that Islamic terrorist groups and Yank neocons have more in common than either care to admit, while “Self” argued the 20th-century culture of narcissism was grounded in the Freud family and the invention of PR. To wit, Curtis argues in “The Trap” that to determine today’s society, social engineers and politicans have adopted a mechanistic view of human beings, in which government has been made to recede to private interests. In the course of this, other models of freedom have been ignored in favor of a dull, technocratic form embraced by such nominally progressive leaders as Bill Clinton and Tony Blair, and extended into the new century.
Three-episode mega-narrative begins with “Fuck You Buddy,” named for a psychological game developed by math genius John Nash. Curtis sniffs down those thinkers who viewed the government with increasing skepticism as the Cold War came to dominate everyday life and international affairs. On one hand, libertarian free marketer Friedrich von Hayek (seen in archival clips) sought to free the economy from any public control, convinced the “invisible hand” of the marketplace would produce a better, wealthier society.
But in what Curtis sees as a more sinister turn, key think-tanks such as Rand (where Nash and nuclear expert Alain Enthoven worked) concocted game theory — the idea that self-interest in the form of self-preservation would prevent the U.S. and the Soviet Union from going to war. Indeed, the notion of a host of purely self-interested parties could be extended to every walk of life.
Second section, “The Lonely Robot,” touches on Curtis’ universal theme — the power of ideas and their consequences for our world. Curtis reveals such post-Hayek thinkers as James Buchanan to have carried great influence with Brit and Yank governments, from Thatcher and Blair to Reagan and Clinton.
Buchanan’s case that “the public interest” is pure myth may sound shocking to some, but it’s based on the cynical if possibly true view that those in governmental power are themselves motivated by self-interest. Perhaps due to his mainly Brit perspective, Curtis ignores President Nixon and the disastrous fallout from Watergate — a huge omission, since it was Watergate, along with the Vietnam debacle, that ushered in a more anti-government national mood in the U.S.
The result, as Curtis portrays it, is that the markets began to be accepted as a truer gauge of social sentiment than any perceived “popular” policies. In the name of expanding freedom by way of the free market, Euro governments instituted a highly technical, numbers-based metrics to measure success or failure.
Finale, “We Will Force You to Be Free,” centers around the great British intellectual Isaiah Berlin and his case against “positive liberty” and for “negative liberty.” Former manifests itself as violent revolutionary change, while the latter allows human beings to do what they want, but with no great causes to strive for.
Perhaps the most fascinating and revealing connection made by Curtis in three hours is how Haitian thinker Franz Fanon drew on Jean-Paul Sartre’s existentialism for his writings favoring armed struggle in the Third World, which in turn became the basis for Iran’s Islamic revolution. As he has done so brilliantly before, Curtis manages to reframe and redefine a political reality that had been assumed to be black, but which actually may be white.
But Curtis stumbles at several stretches in “The Trap,” much of it having to do with his attraction to a grand, unifying theory that explains everything. He fails to account for the various competing ideas at work in such places as Rand and the U.S. government. To suggest that a single school of thought has ruled American public life for more than 40 years is simply not true.
In the course of insisting Nash, Berlin and others are simplifying human beings and politics, Curtis simplifies matters himself. Near the end of part two, he intros and then refuses to explore behavioral economics, which points out how, contrary to game theory, people in the marketplace are complicated, sometimes irrational beings.Several tropes are disconcertingly repeated from the previous series, and the densely layered montage of visual backgrounds and clips is no longer as visually intriguing as it once was. Incredibly, Curtis seems to run out of time before positing precisely what he views as an alternative notion of freedom. After such a mountain of material, a more substantial conclusion is in order, though Curtis may be holding it back for his next tele-magnum opus.