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The Power of Nightmares: The Rise of the Politics of Fear

Updated on April 26, 2015
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Meet Adam Curtis

Adam Curtis argues TV needs 'new tools' to tell its stories
Adam Curtis argues TV needs 'new tools' to tell its stories | Source

About the Power of Nightmares

The Power of Nightmares is a BBC mini-series documentary film, written and produced by Adam Curtis and released to the public on October 20, 2004.

It has a run-time of 180 minutes and is unrated, according to

It consists of three one-hour segments with filler imagery footage and testimony archived footage accompanied by Curtis's narration.

The films depict the rise of the Neo-conservative movement in the United States and the radical Islamist movement.

It draws parallels between the origins of both parties and claims there are many similarities between the two.

It also argues that the threat of radical Islamism was a myth perpetrated by politicians in many countries; more specifically American neo-conservatives in order to inspire Americans following the failure of earlier ideologies associated our government.

“In the past, politicians promised to create a better world. They had different ways of achieving this, but their power and authority came from the optimistic visions they offered their people. Instead of delivering dreams, politicians now promise to protect us from nightmares.”

— Adam Curtis

The Power of Nightmares Trailer

Power of Nightmares Poll

Do you think the media uses fear to control the masses?

See results

Film Analysis

The TV mini-series insinuates that a population in fear is a population that is easily controlled.

The implication of fear that existed in the wake of the September 11th 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States is the focus of Part One of the series.

It depicts the use of anxiety as a tool to manipulate great masses of people into behaving in a more controllable and predictable fashion.

It would seem that Washington is intentionally manipulating the masses into a defensive state that gives those in positions of authority more power than necessary.

The Power of Nightmares claims that politicians once offered the people dreams of a better world and that they have now switched reels and they promise to protect the people from nightmares.

The most powerful threat to the people according to American politicians is the international terror network; however, this is not the truth.

Part one of the series attributes the rise of the politics of fear to the year 1949 with two men; one being Sayed Kotb or Sayyid Qutb, who was an Egyptian civil servant sent to the United States to learn about the education system, but became disgusted with the smoke and mirrors he saw.

He felt that he had witnessed nothing but corruption of morals and virtues in this western society through individualism. He saw American society as taking people backwards and felt he wanted to prevent that type of culture from taking over his own country.

He returned to Egypt and was disturbed by westernization he witnessed under Gamal Abdel Nasser and was ultimately convinced that in order to save society it must be completely restructured along the lines of Islamic law while still using western technology and became a founder of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Who is this guy?


Other Critic's opinions

The top critic in the photo featured above is Owen Gleiberman who wrote about the other man, Leo Strauss, who is also attributed to the rise of the politics of fear in a movie review on Entertainment Weekly's website. Owen begins by praising Curtis' work,

"Curtis does his homework. He shows, for instance, how the neocons deliberately fabricated evidence of the Soviet threat (an astonishing clip of Donald Rumsfeld in the '70s, talking about undetectable weapon systems that never existed, will look eerily familiar), and that their philosophical godfather, the legendary academic Leo Strauss, endorsed the use of such fictions as a basic organizing tool of a civilized society." ("The Power of Nightmares: The rise of the politics of fear).

(from top right) Leo Strauss, Sayed Kotb, Donald Rumsfeld, (two in center) Ayman al-Zawahiri and Osama bin Laden, William "Bill" Kristol.
(from top right) Leo Strauss, Sayed Kotb, Donald Rumsfeld, (two in center) Ayman al-Zawahiri and Osama bin Laden, William "Bill" Kristol. | Source

Wrap Up

Sayed Kotb and Leo Strauss are depicted in the TV mini-series as being evil twins reacting against the selfish individualism of America's post–World War II affluence.

But the contrast between the two was that Kotb truly believed and Strauss was more pessimistic in the teachings that nationalism and religion are influential illusions to promote social cohesion and prevent civil unrest.

Curtis argues in the series that these same neoconservatives set out to defeat Henry Kissinger, accompanied by fabulous footage of Donald Rumsfeld lying about the Soviet danger, not to mention the CIA interviews he complied which illustrate how they had black propaganda invented to smear the Soviet Union.

Kotb was executed in 1966 but the ideas continued to spread and influence the revolution of Iran, Anwar Sadat's assassination, and the terror associated with Osama Bin Laden which is discussed in the final episode.

It is argued in this episode that Al Qaeda was invented by the neo-conservatives as a means to prosecute Bin Laden and the reason why it disappeared so suddenly because it never existed.

The entire TV mini-series is quite spooky in itself. It is startling to think of how much goes on around us daily that directly affect our lives and that we have absolutely no control over.

Taking into consideration the bias of Curtis (exaggeration of the influence of the neoconservatives), and after watching three hours of footage on the topic, it seems that The Power of Nightmare holds some weight but might demonstrate what it proposes to demystify from a phantom enemy perspective of fear.


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