The Phantom Menace


The underground hit of the Tribeca Film Festival and the most widely discussed docu agitprop since Fahrenheit 9/11, Adam Curtis’s The Power of Nightmares takes a similarly confrontational stance toward Bush-world disorder. But the counter-narrative offered by this three-part, three-hour BBC account of the so-called war on terror is more complex and seductive.

Curtis’s thesis assumes the failure of liberalism. Each episode begins with the assertion that, where once they promised us social utopia, politicians now vie to be the most persuasively frightening. Then, like a gavel rapping for attention, Curtis presents the rogues’ gallery: Bush, Bin Laden, and Blair. The movie’s first and most provocative hour argues that the Islamic fundamentalist Sayyid Qutb, a founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, and neocon guru Leo Strauss were evil twins—both reacting against the perceived selfish individualism of America’s post–World War II affluence. But where Qutb may have been a true believer, Strauss was more cynical in teaching that religion and nationalism are necessary illusions for social cohesion.

Beginning in the mid ’70s, so Curtis argues, the neocons and their allies set out to defeat Henry Kissinger’s ruthless pragmatism. Among other evidence, he provides fabulous footage of Donald Rumsfeld lying about the Soviet danger. Then too, America was threatened by undetectable weapon systems—all the more present because unverifiable—and an international “terror network,” albeit one coordinated by Moscow. (According to Curtis’s CIA interviewees, much of the evidence for this was actually black propaganda invented to scare our NATO allies and taken as truth by the Committee on the Present Danger.) Meanwhile, despite Qutb’s 1966 execution, his ideas spread—influencing the Iranian revolution, the assassination of Anwar Sadat, and through his disciple Ayman al-Zawahiri, the jihadist terror of Osama Bin Laden.

Curtis discusses the convergence of neocon and jihadist interest in Soviet-occupied Afghanistan. But his narrative comes unraveled both in his underemphasis on Desert Storm’s unintended consequences and overemphasis on the conservative “political terrorism” directed against President Bill Clinton. Just marking time until back in power and relentlessly exploiting 9-11, Rumsfeld, Cheney, and Wolfowitz set about conjuring a spook house of sleeper cells, dirty bombs, and Iraqi WMDs.

In his final episode, Curtis makes his most controversial assertion. Buttressed by the French political scientist Gilles Kepel, he argues that Al Qaeda was essentially invented by the neocons as a means to prosecute Bin Laden—and the reason that it disappeared was because it never really existed. This is not an easy sell in the shadow of no Trades and one wonders how Curtis’s line would play in the U.K. in the aftermath of last July’s bombings. In fact, he has recently provided a perfunctory disclaimer: “Although we in the West face a serious terrorist threat, the apocalyptic vision of Al Qaeda portrayed by politicians and the media over the past four years is both a distortion and an exaggeration.”

That’s a more reasonable take, but The Power of Nightmares is essentially polemical. As partisan filmmaking it is often brilliant and sometimes hilarious—a superior version of Syriana (which also prudently subtracts Israel and the Palestinians from the Middle East equation). Cinematic argument is founded on juxtaposition, but where Michael Moore’s montage is essentially comic, Curtis is more visionary in his connections. He enlivens his frequently fantastic archival footage not just with sarcastic pop songs, but repeated clips from the 1940 Thief of Bagdad, the surreal mid-’50s industrial spectacular Design for Dreaming, and Leo Strauss’s favorite TV shows (Gunsmoke and Perry Mason).

At heart, Curtis’s worldview feels closer to that of Don DeLillo than to Noam Chomsky. The desire for narrative coherence is crucial to the understanding of any social formation—and fear of a phantom enemy is a necessary ingredient for social control. Curtis is certainly on target in addressing the role of necessary fiction in clouding our minds. But go forewarned that The Power of Nightmares also demonstrates what it proposes to demystify.