The Power Of Nightmares: The Rise Of The Politics Of Fear

Originally aired on BBC as a multi-part television series, this three-hour documentary aims to show how politicians who once proffered visions of milk, honey and national prosperity now hope to gain power through frightening and exaggerated visions of apocalypse and international terrorism. Sifting through the past 50 years of U.S. and Middle Eastern history,...read more

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Reviewed by Ken Fox
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Originally aired on BBC as a multi-part television series, this three-hour documentary aims to show how politicians who once proffered visions of milk, honey and national prosperity now hope to gain power through frightening and exaggerated visions of apocalypse and international terrorism. Sifting through the past 50 years of U.S. and Middle Eastern history, filmmaker Adam Curtis sets out to show how the neo-conservatives of Washington and radical Islamists of the Muslim world — two remarkably similar groups of idealists — both came to find power in fear mongering. In the first segment, "Baby It's Cold Outside," Curtis traces the influences of two very different men who shared strikingly similar thoughts on the destructiveness of western liberalism: Leo Strauss, the enigmatic University of Chicago philosopher who would inspire the neo-cons, and Sayeed Kutb, an Egyptian school inspector who would come to play an important role in the development of the neo-cons' nightmare du jour — radical Islam. Both Strauss and Kutb felt that the selfish pursuit of individual freedoms that lies at the heart of western liberalism undermines the shared moral framework that holds societies together. Hoping to eradicate this insidious western evil through violence and terror, Kutb's acolytes, among them Ayman al-Zawarhi, formed an elite vanguard known as the Islamic Jihad which strongly advocated the assassination of politicians and other "false Muslims." Meanwhile in Washington, Straussian neo-cons like Paul Wolfowitz and Richard Perle sought to counter the same kind of liberal decay with galvanizing myths of the U.S. as the sole force of good in a world threatened by an insidious evil, namely the U.S.S.R. In part two, "The Phantom Victory," the neo-cons join forces with the Islamists to battle the for an epic good-vs.-evil smack-down against that "phantom enemy" in Soviet occupied Afghanistan. Also receiving U.S.-backed training alongside moderate Islamists, however, were radical extremists like Zawarhi and his cohort, Osama bin Laden, who, the wake of the Soviet defeat, would claim victory and call for similar, regime-toppling Jihad in other "corrupt" countries. The neo-cons, meanwhile, find two convenient replacement boogeyman for the trounced U.S.S.R.: Saddam Hussein, who invades Kuwait, and that corrupt adulterer, Bill Clinton. The third segment, "The Shadows in the Cave," Middle East and West are on a collision course, but nothing is exactly what it seems. Having frightened their intended supporters off by their violence, Zawarhi and bin Laden retreat to Afghanistan and declare war on America itself, and with 9/11, supply the neo-cons with a new, credible enemy: a vast terror network headed by bin Laden they call Al Qaeda, but which never actually exist until the neo-cons invented it in order to prosecute bin Laden in absentia for the Nairobi embassy bombings three years earlier. After destroying the Islamists in Afghanistan, the neo-cons of the second Bush administration virtually reconstruct the movement through threats of future attacks that transform Zawarhi and bin Laden's defunct dream into what Curtis believes is yet another "phantom enemy." Using a host of tantalizing details, newsreel footage, talking-head interviews and irreverent vintage film clips, Curtis weaves a satisfying, explain-it-all narrative which, like any good conspiracy theory, provides considerable comfort for those who fear the world really is as unknowable as the neo-cons have warned. It's intriguing stuff, but Curtis overplays his hand when he underplays the existence of any real threat from sleeper cells (Madrid? London? Amman?), proposes that Al Qaeda is a fiction and risks undermining the credibility of an otherwise compelling argument.

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  • Released: 2004
  • Rating: NR
  • Review: Originally aired on BBC as a multi-part television series, this three-hour documentary aims to show how politicians who once proffered visions of milk, honey and national prosperity now hope to gain power through frightening and exaggerated visions of apoc… (more)

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