British documaker Adam Curtis, who brilliantly connected the dots between Freudian psychoanalysis, PR/marketing and people’s self-image in the 2002 “The Century of the Self,” turns his attention to the politics of fear in “The Power of Nightmares.” Result is a superb, eye-opening and often absurdly funny deconstruction of the myths and realities of global terrorism that is marked by a balance, broadmindedness and sense of historical perspective so absent from many recent political-themed docus, including Michael Moore’s “Fahrenheit 9/11.” Already a television event on BBC in the U.K., pic is presently making the festival rounds, where strong buzz will fuel healthy international sales.
Pic’s title refers to Curtis’ assertion that, whereas politicians once offered their publics utopian visions of a better society, they now prefer to instill fear in the masses with grave warnings of imminent external threats. This thesis then serves as Curtis’ foundation for an even more provocative argument: Namely, that the rise of Islamic extremism in the East and of so-called neo-conservatism in the West are two sides of the same coin — methods of population control rooted in the exploitation of collective popular fears.
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In the first of pic’s three segments, subtitled “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” Curtis focuses on two men: Egyptian educator and social theorist Said Qutb, and American philosopher Leo Strauss. Recounting a visit Qutb paid in 1949 to Greeley, Colo., Curtis explains how Qutb was appalled by the selfishness, materialism, isolationism and vanity he observed there.
Convinced that such behavior was the direct result of America’s unchecked social freedoms, Qutb returned to Egypt resolved that such decadent permissiveness shouldn’t be allowed to foster in the Islamic world.
Meanwhile, Strauss was beginning to instruct his students at the U. of Chicago in a similar line of thought: that progressive liberalism would inevitably sow the seeds of its own destruction.
As he ably demonstrated in “The Century of the Self,” Curtis’ chief strength as a documentarian is his ability (through newly-conducted interviews and carefully selected archival footage) to trace complex social phenomena back to their very DNA. In “Nightmares,” Curtis again connects historical dots, showing how Qutb (who was executed in Egypt in 1966) influenced key individuals, including avowed Qutb disciple Ayman Al-Zawahari, who would go on to found the terror org Islamic Jihad and eventually become the mentor of Osama bin Laden.
Curtis traces Strauss’ influence through his former pupils — among them Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz — who migrated from the world of academia to government. Pic argues they planted the seeds of what would become a popular myth: the role of the United States as the lone upholder of virtue in a world filled with evildoers. (For the record, Strauss occupied a similar svengali-like role in Tim Robbins’ recent play about the Iraq War, “Embedded.”)
Though pic makes it clear early on that it’s headed toward a discussion of the Sept. 11 attacks and their aftermath, Curtis eschews Moore’s reductive finger-pointing in favor of a bracingly intelligent historicism that locates the roots of those present-day tragedies in decisions made by the Reagan and Ford administrations.
Pic’s second segment, “The Phantom Victory,” focuses on Afghanistan’s 1980s uprising of Mujahideen rebels against the occupying Russian forces and how the U.S. government inadvertently gave strength to the very champions of Islamic extremism it would take on two decades later.
Though Curtis (who also serves as pic’s voiceover narrator) is hardly shy about where his own political sympathies lie, he’s also deeply committed to presenting a range of viewpoints. He brings the audience around to seeing things from his p.o.v. without bullying them into submission — a style that, at its best, recalls the classic political documentaries of the late Emile De Antonio.
Pic’s third and final section, “The Shadows in the Cave,” sharply debunks the idea of bin Laden as the puppet master of global terrorism. This section, however, opens itself up to easy criticism, inexplicably omitting relevant discussion points, like the 1993 World Trade Center attack and the case of American “shoe bomber” Richard Reid, that would seem to weaken Curtis’ terrorism-is-but-a-fantasy position.
Still, pic’s cumulative power is devastating in its portrait of a nation that must always seek out a new fearsome adversary or, perchance, even invent one to fit the bill.
Owing to pic’s origins as a TV miniseries, each episode begins with a brief recap of the previous one and ends with a full credits sequence — sequences that could be removed for theatrical exhibition and, in doing so, reduce pic’s running time by 5-10 minutes.