The Power of Nightmares: The Rise of the Politics of Fear

A film review by Chris Barsanti - Copyright © 2005

It takes a lot to not only ask questions that would normally mark one as an utter loon, but to do so in a fashion that makes people take your ostensibly insane point seriously. Since some people will believe just about anything, as long as it involves secretive Western imperialist motives, it should come as no surprise that some believe that not only are there some truly cynical motives behind the war on terror, but that just about the whole thing may be a fraud. Normally, this kind of thinking comes off as ostrich-like head-burying, sort of a reverse Chicken Little syndrome, but as presented in the bracing, occasionally terrifying documentary The Power of Nightmares, it’s a point of view that at least deserves its day in court.

The first thesis explored in Adam Curtis’ film (originally televised as a three-part series on the BBC in 2004) is that two of the more influential ideologies in today’s world – namely, neo-conservatism and radical Islamism – are surprisingly similar, given that they are currently locked in a struggle to the death. As laid out in the opening segment, Baby, It’s Cold Outside, both ideologies were born in the late 1940s in America, neo-conservatism with the teachings of philosopher Leo Strauss at the University of Chicago and extremist Islamism with Egyptian engineer Sayyid Qutb, who became radicalized after spending time in Colorado. Both men were absolutists for whom American culture was not only perilously decadent and frivolous, but dangerous. Strauss’s beliefs gave birth to the neo-con movement, which set itself apart from mainstream conservatism by rejecting its hard-nosed isolationist viewpoint and embracing a fervently interventionist and idealistic philosophy whereby the spread of American-style values and democracy became the ultimate goal. Qutb went back to Egypt and fomented for change, later founding the ultra-violent Muslim Brotherhood, the spiritual grandfather of almost all radical Islamists groups operating today, after being imprisoned and brutally tortured by the government. Both Strauss and Qutb’s followers honed their beliefs throughout the Cold War, with neo-cons like Cheney and Rumsfeld first gaining a foothold in the White House during the 1970s and the Muslim Brotherhood making its presence known with acts like the assassination of Anwar Sadat.

Part two, The Phantom Victory, shows how the neo-cons and Islamists came together in the cauldron that was Afghanistan, the conflict which set the stage for the end of the Cold War, the collapse of the old order, and the birth of their current, mutually reinforcing battle. The story of how neo-cons pushed for engagement in Afghanistan (initially against the wishes of mainline conservatives like Reagan) and ended up helping to train and arm Islamist militants like bin Laden in the fight against the Soviet Union is not new. However, what makes this segment more interesting than expected is that it’s where Curtis develops his second (and ultimately more thought-provoking) thesis, that in the post-Cold War era, when the old monolithic ideologies have fallen by the wayside, governments increasingly will exhort their populations not with grand visions of a better future, but with fear.

Curtis pulls the strands of his sprawling argument together in the most eye-opening segment, Shadows in the Cave, in which he posits that the war on terror is hardly a war at all, and that events like Madrid, 9/11, and the African embassy bombings of 1998 were more isolated incidents than anything else, and hardly evidence of a vast and well-coordinated international terrorist network. Although one can (and many viewers will) debate the details of the argument that the vaunted al Qaeda is more a hollow shell than anything else, there’s no denying Curtis’ point that it makes sense for fear-mongering governments (and the media that shamelessly feeds such fears, as both groups did with the exaggeration of the Soviet threat during the Cold War) to embrace the idea of a mysterious and all-powerful enemy.

There are definitely times when Power of Nightmares overreaches and ends up fudging its points (the occasional, cheesy use of horror-movie-like music cues doesn’t help), Curtis being a filmmaker who swings for the bleachers and doesn’t always make it. The film runs through a particularly rough patch when, in the effort to continually mirror everything done by both the Islamists and neo-cons, it tries to show the neo-cons moralistic hands in the right-wing attacks on Clinton during the 1990s. It’s an argument that doesn’t hold any water, given that the neo-cons were a completely different band than the conservative cabal that harped on Whitewater and Monica, the neo-cons being a pretty starchy bunch of bookish university types who had little truck with the Bible-thumping prudery of the anti-Clinton attack machinery.

But these caveats shouldn’t obscure the fact that, problematic as it is, this is that rare kind of political film that makes a good faith effort at getting its viewers to look at the world in a different way. This is no small matter in a time when documentaries are increasingly little more than self-reinforcing and unchallenging propaganda machines for their respective points of view, eschewing serious analysis and unconventional thinking – Michael Moore should be ashamed.

Reviewed at the 2005 Tribeca Film Festival. Note that upon its eventual domestic theatrical release, some of the more redundant material – resulting from having three episodes of a TV series linked together into one program – will likely have been edited out.


4.0 out of 5 Stars

  • Director: Adam Curtis
  • Producer: Adam Curtis, Peter Horrocks, Stephen Lambert
  • Screenwriter: Adam Curtis
  • Stars:
  • MPAA Rating: NR