DVD: The Power of Nightmares (BBC documentary)


"[Director] Adam Curtis' central organizing premise is doubtless audacious: that one can trace a compelling parallel history of two seemingly disparate movements Middle Eastern Qutbian Islamic militant fundamentalism and Middle-American Straussian militant neoconservatism over the past half-century. A time when politicians could no longer inspire masses through bright hopes and instead had to stampede them with dark fears, such that the politicians capable of instilling the greatest fears succeeded in amassing the greatest power.

The first installment [of the film] starts out in a brimmingly bouyant America, triumphant at the end of the Second World War, the GI's back home, the economy starting to take off, with two foreign observers of the reigning dispensation: Sayyid Qutb, an Egyptian educator visiting Greeley College in Colorado, and Leo Strauss, the Weimar-era political theorist and refugee marooned at the University of Chicago who both find themselves taking a decidedly darker, more sour and puritanically appalled view of the prevailing freewheeling and permissive tides sweeping American culture (as they both see, cringingly) threatening to sweep the rest of the world. They separately develop ruthless critiques of the reigning liberal orthodoxies which in turn separately spawn vanguard political movements of fervent adherents whose parallel histories, Curtis contends, afford a new way of looking at the forces that led to and culminated the events of 9/11 and their calamitous progeny.

The first part follows these parallel strands through the mid-1980's. with the martyred Qutb's followers succeeding in assassinating Egypt's Sadat, and Strauss's men capturing key positions in the Reagan administration. The neoconservatives now set out to transform the world.

In Part 2, "The Phantom Victory" finds the Reagan neoconservatives themselves joining forces with the Islamists in Afghanistan, and together they fight an epic battle against the Soviet Union. Both the neocons and the Islamists come to believe that they had defeated the Evil Empire. But this imagined victory would leave them without an enemy. In a world disillusioned with grand political ideas, they both would need to invent new fantasies and new nightmares, in order to maintain their power.The two sides find themselves improbably allied, each other's best friends for a full half decade, in fact, both emerging convinced that they and they alone had brought down communism and fully expected to be greeted as conquering heroes in their respective realms.

[Documentary filmmaker] Errol Morris wrote about the film: 'What could be more pleasing than a fable of good and evil, of darkness and light? Isn't this the stuff of all legends? The forces of evil pitted against the forces of good, with good triumphant in the end. But here is a curious twist on this old saw: Adam Curtis has the two forces pitted against each other, but they are both evil. Or at best two sides of the same evil coin. And, so Curtis has created a new kind of fable: a story of evil against evil.

As such, in "the Power of Nightmares" Bush and Blair terrorize their constituents (subjects?) by using fear rather than hope as a political cattleprod: Get those damned citizens up...and going with a dose of anxiety, and if that fails, a hefty dose of raw terror. In this view 9/11 becomes the lynchpin of the modern world and its modern struggle. But make no mistake, it's only a struggle between two equally unappetizing worldviews.' That is essentially the theme of Part 2, which by its end finds both movements curiously played out. The militant Islamicists unable to rouse the Arab masses to fundamentalist revolution in Egypt, Algeria, Saudi Arabia or anywhere else (with the problematic exception of Afghanistan), and the American neocons aghast at the failure of the American masses to rise up in righteous revulsion at the manifest depredations of their own arch-enemy Bill Clinton. And yet, somehow, they stand on the verge of a stupendous regeneration: with the attack on the World Trade Center, they get to rediscover each other, this time as their respective most horrendous enemies, dragging the world back into a yet further round of escalating and compounding fear mongering and terror.

In the documentary's 3rd Part, "The Shadows in the Cave" Curtis goes on to contend that these nightmare fears are way overblown, where not entirely illusory. He is arguing that Al Qaeda, as any sort of cohesive, top-down organization with central management and secret tentacle cells spread throughout the world, doesn't even exist, but is a fevered projection of useful neoconservative fantasies, a case he proceeds to lay out through meticulous attention to each of the legal cases that have been mounted against supposed Al Qaeda operatives, almost all of which have, after enormous initial fanfare, proven utterly stillborn.

[Curtis interviews] Bill Durodie, the director of the International Centre for Security Analysis at Kings College, U.K.: interviewer: So there was no [international terrorist] network? Durodie: No. Interviewer: Never? Durodie: Probably not. Interviewer: We invented it? Durodie: Invention is to strong a term. I think we projected it we projected our own worst fears, and what we see is a fantasy that's been created...I'm not saying that an atrocity might not happen on the British mainland. What I am saying is that we have an exaggerated perception of the possibility of terrorism that is quite disabling, and we only need to look at the evidence to understand that the figures simply don't bear out the way that we have responded as a society." from the quarterly DVD Magazine "Wholphin" review of the film (2007)