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Movie Review: The Power of Nightmares

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I'm writing about an amazing movie, one of the most remarkable films I have ever experienced.

It is readily available on Google Video and Archive.org.

The effect is mind-expanding, and I believe many others in the large audience where I first saw it (at Pace University, as part of the Tribeca Film Festival) felt the same way.
Entitled The Power of Nightmares: The Rise of the Politics of Fear, it's actually a three-part BBC TV series, first shown in the UK right before the 2004 US presidential election.

From the big crowd and the strong reactions (sustained applause and cheering at the end, after three hours of rapt attention), I assumed it would get a theatrical release here and then be shown on television and released on DVD. But this may never happen — no American TV outlets have taken it, and since it uses lots of archival footage and music, the rights issues may keep it from ever being released on disc.

It's a deliberately, audaciously provocative piece, with a great deal of cheeky smart-alecky humor, and it will be very controversial in the US. Some will call it an outrageous pack of lies. Even those like myself who are blown away by the film's brilliance may question some of its methods and assertions. It is almost certainly guilty of over-simplification and overstatement and the occasional cheap shot.

But the powerful central idea, explosively well presented, is what is important about the film. It says that politicians maintain their power by creating myths that strike fear in the general population. The scarier the myth, the greater the power of those who promulgate it. The cases in point are American neoconservatives and radical Islamists. The film finds remarkable similarities in their origins, their temporary declines, and their resurgence after 9/11. Among its more startling assertions: there is not and never was such an organization as Al Qaeda. (For an excellent – and not uncritical – analysis of the film, see Peter Bergen in The Nation , last summer.)

At any rate, try to see this at your earliest opportunity. I'd love to discuss it with others who have experienced it. I still think this is one of the best (and most entertaining — often disconcertingly funny) nonfiction films I have ever seen. Since it consists of three one-hour parts, watching it on your PC is hardly an acceptable substitute for seeing the film in a theater or on DVD (or TV), but none of those methods are likely in the near future. If you have a fast connection, an alert frame of mind, and a little time, please take a look. By the end of the first 20 minutes, you may find yourself as hooked as I was/am.

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  • Why do I get the feeling that this movie got its strong reactions–sustained applause and cheering at the end–because the audience was seeing what they wanted to see? That irrational preconceptions molded their responses?

    If anything, the disconcerting message of the fim should have met with sobering alarm.

  • I saw the film when it aired on the BBC in the UK, and also felt the impulse to stand up and cheer, or at least phone a few friends to tell them about it.

    Don’t worry, the film is both sobering and alarming. I think the reason I felt like applauding is because it’s one of the rare dissenting voices in the current homogenous media landscape, and that’s something worth cheering for. It’s a cleverly formulated piece of activism which dares to say out loud things that many are thinking, not just in the UK but in the US as well.

    I really recommend this film, not because it’s has the final word on the rise of terrorism and that of the neo-conservatives, but because it offers a different perspective, one which enriches the debate tremendously.

  • Nevertheless, for the film to dismiss the notion that there is or ever was an Al Queda is so patently absurb and discreditably crackpot that I can’t see Curtis’ assertions to amounting to anything more than left-wing screed that has found a ready-made audience of conspiracy hounds. To cite–as indicated in the review–Peter Bergen in the Nation:

    “But [Curtis] blows it when he concludes that Al Qaeda is a phantasmagorical construct of US officials…
    Indeed, there is an excellent example of how this global organization operated that, for obvious reasons, goes unmentioned in Curtis’s documentary. In December 2001 Singaporean authorities arrested thirteen operatives of Jemaah Islamiyah, the largest Southeast Asian terrorist group, for planning to blow up the US Embassy there. It transpired that those operatives had videotaped the embassy as part of their preparations for attacking it and had sent a copy of the tape to Mohammed Atef, Al Qaeda’s military commander in Afghanistan, so he could give the operation his blessing. In addition, a man who went by the alias of Hambali was simultaneously Jemaah Islamiyah’s operational commander and a member of Al Qaeda’s shura council, or deliberative body. Although Burke in his book was correct to emphasize that lumping together all the jihadist groups from around the world as “Al Qaeda” is a serious oversimplification, that does not change the fact that there was an Al Qaeda organization (an organization that has now largely been replaced by the militant jihadist ideological movement from which Al Qaeda first sprang and to which Al Qaeda has now given a tremendous boost).”

  • The applause was largely due to how exhilaratingly well made the film is. Adam Curtis uses the medium as skillfully and entertainingly as anyone ever has, turning what could have been a dry essay into something much more riveting. Of course this was in New York, and there was plenty of liberal/left/anti-Bush sentiment in the room, but it was also at a film festival, and people were reacting to a really great movie.

    It’s also helpful to think of the film as a work of exploratory ideas, not a recitation of facts. Thus to focus on whether or not Al Qaeda is a real global network is to miss the larger point: the fear of terrorism has given politicians a means to extend and consolidate their power.