Beyond the Multiplex

The most important political documentary of the decade suggests that the "war on terrorism" is a dark delusion -- and there's no such thing as al-Qaida.

By Andrew O'Hehir
Published December 8, 2005 12:00PM (EST)

At some point in the weeks after 9/11, I was on the phone with my mother, who lives in California. Like most other New Yorkers, I had been through a literally life-changing experience of shock and mourning, but my level of cynicism about our beloved country and its leadership (along with pretty much everything else) was gradually returning to normal. Even so, my mother surprised me. She's a former left-wing labor organizer and onetime member of the Communist Party USA, admittedly, but these days she's more like a liberal Democrat (if they still exist) than anything else. The phrase "war on terrorism" came up in our conversation, and she snorted. "Yeah," she said, dripping derision. "What war? And what terrorism?"

Well, I thought she was speaking much too broadly at the time, but I'm less sure about that now. After seeing Adam Curtis' explosive three-part BBC film debunking the entire post-2001 terrorism scare, "The Power of Nightmares," in fact, I'm not too sure about anything. Curtis' headline-grabbing claims are certainly explosive -- he suggests that political power in the so-called Western democracies now depends on promulgating dark fantasies completely unsupported by reality, and that there is pretty much no such thing as al-Qaida. I don't entirely agree with his apparent political position, and wherever you stand on the continuum, you probably won't either. But it strikes me that "The Power of Nightmares" is the most important political documentary of this decade, and perhaps of my lifetime.

There are holes you can poke in pieces of Curtis' argument, and in the end his film may become the very thing it's dissecting, that is, a totalizing critique of the collapse of Western civilization. But this is the movie (or should be) that will make both Michael Moore and Judy Miller sit bolt upright, clap themselves on the forehead and proclaim, "Now I get it!" As one letter-writer to the BBC's Web site has put it, Curtis is like Morpheus, offering us the little red pill that will set us free from the lies, half-truths and distortions of the last five (or 50) years.

But as those twist-tie red-white-and-blue bumper stickers remind us, freedom isn't free. "The Power of Nightmares" is an important film, but it's going to take some hard work and diligent consumer activism before anyone outside New York gets to see it. DVD release may happen eventually, although Curtis uses so much archival footage and period music that the legal clearances will be a nightmare, ha ha. And as for broadcast on American television, I'm told that will happen, let's see, approximately 5,000 years after pigs first begin to fly across the frozen wastelands of hell. It's probably illegal not just to watch, but also to read about or think about. You and I are both committing treason right now.

Now that we're free, what else do we do? I know -- let's watch some intense and gut-wrenching motion pictures! The kind of stuff our friends think we're weird for liking! We'll also learn this week why you should never bring a vampire cannibal girl from H.P. Lovecraft's universe home to your Tokyo apartment, and explore how, for one veteran of Peru's civil war trying to return to civilian life, the fighting never stops.

"The Power of Nightmares": Lies, damned lies, Osama and the neocons
For much of Adam Curtis' three-part documentary "The Power of Nightmares," you'll be holding your breath -- as much to see whether Curtis can pull off this exercise in exhilarating, darkly funny filmmaking as because of his heretical argument. I'm pretty sure I disagree with the underlying premise of Curtis' work, which is that political leaders used to rely on the optimistic force of ideology (whether socialist, fascist or capitalist) to lead the public, and we now live in a post-ideological age when politics is driven largely by fear. But the journey he takes us on from there is both dazzling and convincing, and it may rely less on those shaky underpinnings than he thinks.

As those who've seen Curtis' previous film "The Century of the Self" will attest, he's a brilliant collage artist who specializes in accumulating disparate pieces of visual and aural history and assembling a picture that seems at once grotesque and coherent. In the first hourlong episode alone (titled "Baby, It's Cold Outside") we travel from a collegiate dance in Greeley, Colo., in 1949 to the 1981 assassination of Anwar Sadat, from the secretive early-'50s classroom sessions of legendary University of Chicago philosopher Leo Strauss to the historic moment in 1980 when the Christian right embraced the presidential candidacy of a certain retired film actor. It's the kind of breathtaking, connect-the-dots, cultural-historical analysis you may associate (depending on taste) with Marx or Hayek, with Greil Marcus or Camille Paglia.

Or, indeed, with Curtis' specific targets, Sayyid Qutb and the aforementioned Leo Strauss. Curtis' astonishing claim is that these two men, one the grandfather of Islamic fundamentalism and the other the father of neoconservatism, shared the same horrified reaction to the decadence of Western liberalism and together gave birth to our contemporary predicament. Their ideologies have run on parallel courses for 50-plus years, overlapping conveniently in Afghanistan in the 1980s and then colliding spectacularly on and after Sept. 11, 2001. But -- and here's the salient point -- whether officially opposed or officially in alliance, the neocons and the Islamists need each other. Neither ideology, Curtis argues, has ever managed much of a popular constituency, and neither could survive without its evil mirror image to serve as a sprawling, never-defeated enemy.

Qutb was an idealistic Egyptian student who came to Colorado to study in the late '40s; Strauss was a Jewish-German intellectual who had fled Hitler and arrived in the United States a decade earlier. Both, Curtis argues, saw in the prosperous society of postwar America a vision of liberalism in decay, a nation consumed by materialism, sensuality and moral relativism. Qutb -- who was particularly horrified by the chest-to-chest dancing he observed among Colorado undergraduates -- was a devout believer who wondered whether the Middle East could produce rich, modern societies anchored in the moral certainties of the Quran. Strauss, on the other hand, thought liberal democracy was worth defending, but thought its people needed myths to live by -- "noble lies," in Plato's phrase -- to rescue them from indolence and depravity.

(Here's a dissertation topic for someone: The third pillar of an anti-Western philosophical tripod might be supplied by Strauss' former colleagues T.W. Adorno and Max Horkheimer, authors of the influential tract "Dialectic of Enlightenment," which in particular scourged the entertainment industry as a vapid and monolithic tool of capitalist ideology. They also fled Hitler for the United States and concurred, from their dour, post-Marxist perspective, that Western civilization was descending into barbarism; their work launched a parallel tradition of left-wing anti-Americanism that endures in academia today.)

So you could argue, although Curtis never exactly does, that at least Islamic fundamentalism was sincere, whereas neoconservatism was cynical, or at least highly pragmatic, from its inception. Qutb was a zealot who apparently became more so after being tortured and brutalized by Nasser's secret police during his career as an Egyptian activist (he was eventually executed in 1966), but it's by no means clear that he envisioned a worldwide campaign of demented and suicidal terror attacks as the path forward for Islam. It was his disciple Ayman al-Zawahiri who eventually created Islamic Jihad and its grandiose dreams of conquering the Middle East; various people in the film suggest that Osama bin Laden has primarily been the moneybags behind Zawahiri's tiny cadre of believers.

Strauss, on the other hand, was a worldly, sophisticated figure, and what he envisioned pretty much came to pass: a vanguard movement of conservative intellectuals who would help to reconstruct America's sense of exceptional destiny, linked to a resurgence of Christian faith in its simplest, most popular form. It didn't matter whether the intellectuals themselves believed in these useful myths, Strauss argued, only that the myths served to sustain the society. (This goes some distance toward explaining the uncomfortable fact that the neocons are overwhelmingly a group of secular Jewish intellectuals who depend on fundamentalist Christians for their political power.)

It's not fair to say that no one has drawn these connections before; Curtis relies on an extensive network of academics, activists, authors, ex-CIA agents, former government officials and onetime mujahedin fighters to build his arguments. (Indeed several prominent neocons, including Richard Perle, Michael Ledeen and Richard Pipes, get to state their own cases.) But no one has so sweepingly, or so entertainingly, made the case that American foreign policy over the last three decades has increasingly been formed by the dark fantasies of an elite group desperate to reshape the national sense of purpose, at whatever cost to truth or global stability.

Over the following two episodes, Curtis tracks the development of the neocon and Islamist visions, most critically when they converged in Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation -- both groups came to believe, incorrectly, that they had fatally harpooned the commie behemoth -- but also through the late Cold War arms buildup, the Reagan administration's doctrine of covert warfare, the generally disastrous Islamic revolutions of the '80s and '90s, the neocon persecution of Bill Clinton and, of course, their mutual declaration of war after 9/11. It doesn't all work equally well (the focus on Clinton is overamped, despite the elegant summary provided by my esteemed colleague Joe Conason), but every few minutes brings both a moment of startled understanding and more of Curtis' mysterious audiovisual poetry -- clips from "The Thief of Baghdad," snippets of soundtrack from John Carpenter's "Prince of Darkness," spooky taxicab shots of the deserted late-night streets of Washington, London or New York.

Curtis ends by proclaiming that al-Qaida, the great nemesis of George W. Bush and the entire neocon ascendancy, doesn't exist at all -- or at least didn't exist until the neocon brain trust within the U.S. government created it. This is easy to caricature in the wake of the Madrid and London bombings, but not so easy to dismiss. As witness after witness explains, hardly anyone, anywhere in the world, has been definitively linked to Osama bin Laden's purported international terror network, and much of the purported facts we were fed about al-Qaida in the wake of 9/11 were pure fiction.

Those air-conditioned cave complexes in Tora Bora, complete with tank garages and hydroelectric power? They didn't exist, beyond those lovingly detailed drawings in Rupert Murdoch's newspapers. The "sleeper cells" discovered in Detroit and Buffalo? Linked to no plots, no suspicious phone calls or papers or e-mails and no physical evidence (unless you want to see the infamous Disneyland pillow-fight video that way). The evidence of a "dirty bomb" plot? Planted by a con man or extracted under torture -- and in any case, the Department of Energy's official simulation of a dirty-bomb detonation forecast exactly zero casualties.

Let me make clear that Curtis is not a wacko conspiracy theorist; the 9/11 attacks were genuinely carried out by those 19 nut-job Arab hijackers, he says, but outside the direct control of Zawahiri and bin Laden (and possibly even without their knowledge). The term "al-Qaida," Curtis says, was invented by prosecutors seeking to punish those behind the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings in Africa, and there's no evidence that bin Laden himself used it before 9/11.

It's not so much that our government has expended thousands of lives and millions of dollars on a futile war and a global secret-police operation in search of a nonexistent enemy. Rather, the enemy is an idea, a utopian, delusional abstraction we will never be able to torture in any jail or kill in any cave. But then, our side is driven by just such a delusion, the idea that our nation has a special mission to rid the world of evil. As long as these two quasi-religious ideologies are locked in Manichaean combat, playing the endless game of devils and angels, their devotees will reap the benefits -- and the rest of us will remain prisoners to their nightmares.

"The Power of Nightmares" opens Dec. 9 at the Cinema Village in New York. At this point, it has no U.S. distributor.

Fast forward: Picking the wrong girl in "Marebito"; "Dias de Santiago" forges a separate peace
I have no credibility or expertise when it comes to the new wave of Japanese horror films, and I refuse to use the term "J-horror" except to make fun of it. This may explain why I quite enjoyed Takashi Shimizu's "Marebito," which has something of the loosey-goosey, anything-goes feeling of John Carpenter mixed with the gloomy existentialism of recent Japanese cinema. These movies always make me feel as if I came in halfway through and missed some crucial plot development (that especially plagued me in Kiyoshi Kurosawa's intriguing "Pulse," probably a much better movie), and the overall mood of digital-video, computer-surveillance anomie suggests a lifetime of too much bad coffee and not enough sleep.

None of that matters much in "Marebito," where we've got a disaffected cameraman (played by another well-known Japanese director, Shinya Tsukamoto) in search of deadly terror who ventures into the mysterious tunnels beneath the Tokyo subway system. Accompanied by a dead man, he ventures into the underground caverns foreseen by '40s fantasy writer Richard Shaver, and then to the Antarctic "Mountains of Madness" out of H.P. Lovecraft. See, you think I'm kidding, but I'm not. He brings home a mute, naked girl with really bad teeth, and that's just never a good idea.

There are various suggestions that none of this is real (you don't say?) and that Tsukamoto's character is just a lunatic with serious family issues made worse by his descent into murder and mayhem. But the mixture of light fantasy, exaggerated bloodshed and loopy philosophizing, along with those depressing, claustrophobic Japanese interiors will appeal to -- well, almost nobody, I guess. But you know who you are. (Opens Dec. 9 in New York; other cities may follow.)

And then there's Peruvian director Josué Méndez's debut "Dias de Santiago," starring the remarkable Pietro Sibille as a 23-year-old jungle fighter named Santiago who tries, and fails, to adjust to the end (or pseudo-end) of that nation's civil war. Much of the drama of "Dias de Santiago" feels foreordained (think "Taxi Driver"), but Méndez is an ambitious and talented filmmaker with a whole bag of tricks at his disposal. The film offers a cold-sweat portrait of life in contemporary Lima as Santiago moves ever closer to meltdown. Fans of Latin American cinema won't want to miss this, and Méndez is clearly a comer -- he's got numerous projects in the works, including some in America. May he not go Hollywood too quickly. (Opens Dec. 8 at the Pioneer Theater in New York; also plays Dec. 12 in Huntington, N.Y., Dec. 20 in Pleasantville, N.Y., and Dec. 21 in Brooklyn, N.Y., with more engagements to follow.)

Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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