The Power of Nightmares

UPDATE: Since writing this review several years ago, I’ve come to realize the Cold War narrative cannot be taken at face value. This realization made me want to revisit this documentary given that I had discredited Curtis for his alternative view of 20th century politics. Shockingly, however, I can’t find this documentary where I originally had, I can no longer find it anywhere on youtube and even topdocumentaryfilms.com seems to be unable to post it. I found one DVD online which I just ordered, but the fact that the film is no longer disseminated online makes me think there are some dangerous truths therein which I had dismissed the first time.

SECOND UPDATE: It’s back on youtube. You can find it here. I’ll be curious to see if it matches up with the DVD I got.

Synopsis from Wikipedia:

The Power of Nightmares, subtitled The Rise of the Politics of Fear, is a BBC documentary film series, written and produced by Adam Curtis. Its three one-hour parts consist mostly of a montage of archive footage with Curtis’s narration. The series was first broadcast in the United Kingdom in late 2004 and has subsequently been broadcast in multiple countries and shown in several film festivals, including the 2005 Cannes Film Festival.

The films compare the rise of the Neo-Conservative movement in the United States and the radical Islamist movement, making comparisons on their origins and claiming similarities between the two. More controversially, it argues that the threat of radical Islamism as a massive, sinister organised force of destruction, specifically in the form of al-Qaeda, is a myth perpetrated by politicians in many countries—and particularly American Neo-Conservatives—in an attempt to unite and inspire their people following the failure of earlier, more utopian ideologies.

My Opinion:

I’m always fascinated by the levers of power so I’m open to evaluating all sorts of theories as to the behind-the-scenes machinations that move our world. I watched both the Power of Nightmares and Century of the Self by Adam Curtis. Some of his ideas are fascinating and true and I was rapt by both of the Curtis documentaries. I tried to take at face value his idea that al Qaeda does not exist and was a construct established by American prosecutors to try Osama bin Laden in absentia under RICO. To some extent this may be true–no doubt prosecutors did their best to fit the evidence into the structure they needed to press their case. (For the record, I think RICO is an outrage–either you committed a criminal act or you didn’t, RICO allows the government to prosecute people for the crimes of others.) I am also open to Curtis’s idea that al Qaeda doesn’t have a hierarchical structure or even that the name al Qaeda is not used by the people in the myriad terrorist cells called by that term.

The documentary loses credibility however for two reasons: First: It claims that the idea that terrorism around the world was financed by the Soviet Union during the mid to late-twentieth century was a baseless delusion by Red Scare types. I am confident this is wrong. There is much evidence to support the role of Soviet money and influence in various anti-capitalist movements in many countries. (Read “Operation Solo: The FBI’s Man in the Kremlin,” by John Barron; for Soviet activity in the U.S., read the riveting “Witness” by Whittaker Chambers.) If Curtis thinks Soviet influence is a myth, I don’t see how we can trust him to recognize other, perhaps more subtle and less organized influences as genuine. Second: Curtis throws in that everything the right threw at Bill Clinton was a total fabrication including his affairs with women and his interactions with Paula Jones–I really tried to believe this one but I couldn’t make myself stop laughing long enough to take it seriously.

The Power of Nightmares is fascinating (everything that plausibly calls into question basic assumptions you hadn’t even recognized as assumptions is fascinating to me) and I do find plausible some of Curtis’s narrative about the rise and influence of the Neo-Conservative movement in America. I recommend the documentary for those who enjoy a good narrative and know enough or have enough sense to pull out facts from propaganda–a tall order I admit as I had to try on Curtis’s theory for a couple of days before ultimately rejecting it. I recently came upon a documentary called No Place to Hide which I suspect might have spurred Curtis to make this film in response.

See also: Tom Secker’s podcast on the subject here.

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