The Power of Nightmares (Curtis, 2004)

The wealth of knowledge in this epic three-part documentary on the parallel rise of the Neo-Conservative movement in America and the Islamic Fundamentalists in the Middle East is astoundingly comprehensive, yet completely critical. And for that, it’s a modern day masterpiece. The Power of Nightmares, as narrated by it’s writer/director/producer Adam Curtis, completes a timeline addressing the changing nature of leaders, ideology, and fear within our current political spectrum. Beginning with Levi Strauss in Chicago and Sayyid Kotb in Egypt during the 1940’s, the film charts the growing unrest between extremist ideals and left wing realities in the western world. Both men’s beliefs stemmed from a realization and hatred for the post WWII liberalism present in American society. When these ideologies failed (namely because of Vietnam, Watergate, the rise of the Shah in Iran), the Neo-Cons and Islamists who were born from Strauss’ and Kotb’s beliefs, began a long campaign to rid the world of such tyranny’s, using fear and violence to convince the masses their word rang the loudest. For the past thirty years, these two groups have grappled in their respective countries for the power to utilize mythologies and manifest destiny’s as tools for converting followers. The Islamists attempted to create fear, but used terrorism in countries like Algeria and Egypt to convince people the corruption and materialism of the west was killing civilization. On the other hand, the Neo-Cons felt and feel America is the rightful fighter of good in the world, combatting “evil” at every turn. As Curtis states, the Neo-Cons created fabricated myth, or nightmare scenarios, to make up reasons to rid the world of these evil states. First, the target was The Soviet Union, and when it fell, 9/11 provided another target, Al Qaeda. Amazingly, as illustrated in the second part of The Power of Nightmares entitled “The Phantom Victory”, Reagan’s administration (filled with Neo-Cons like Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz) aided the Jihadists in Afghanistan during the 1980’s to repel the Russian invaders, both claiming their own victory at the end of the campaign. These types of ironies abound in Curtis’ dissection of the similarities and differences between the two groups, and his critique is as scathing as it is enlightening, especially since we know the end result is the current situation in Iraq. The final segment, entitled “The Shadows in the Cave”, has the most impact simply because it covers the most familiar terrain. It shows the growing fear in America after 9/11 and Bush’s ultimate desire to invade Iraq, finishing what his father was unwilling to do a decade earlier. The distortion of Al Qaeda’s initial importance inexplicably gave that very group more and more power as the years proceeded. Some of The Power of Nightmares is alarming, a perfect example when one analyst astutely describes the Neo-Cons’ strategy: “If you build assumptions on top of assumptions, you can go anywhere.” It seems that the Neo-Cons have used these tactics with great force, and modern day Iraq is an example of the consequences. But the Power of Nightmares is also a fascinating history lesson, or more accurately, a lesson in how people are destined to repeat the mistakes of the past due to their ignorance, arrogance, and stubbornness. Both the Neo-Cons and the Islamists use fear and religious mythologies to gain power, and the world has let them both slip through the door. Curtis shows how both groups have imagined and preyed on the worst possible scenarios, causing a drastic transition of power because of fear and isolationism. One commentator perfectly describes the defining ideology that links them both – “A society that believes in nothing is afraid of anyone who believes in anything.” The dark effect of both the Neo-Con and Islamic Fundamentalist nightmares have reigned over the world with an iron fist, and The Power of Nightmares is a grand cinematic step toward lifting the fog of fear and letting in the light.


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