The Power of Nightmares

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The Power of Nightmares
title screen
Directed by Adam Curtis
Narrated by Adam Curtis
Country of origin United Kingdom
Original language(s) English
No. of episodes 3
Producer(s) Adam Curtis;
Executive Producer Stephen Lambert
Running time 180 minutes
Original channel BBC Two
Original release 20 October – 3 November 2004

The Power of Nightmares: The Rise of the Politics of Fear is a BBC documentary film series, written and produced by Adam Curtis. Its three one-hour parts consist mostly of a montage of archive footage with Curtis's narration. The series was first broadcast in the United Kingdom in late 2004 and has subsequently been broadcast in multiple countries and shown in several film festivals, including the 2005 Cannes Film Festival.

The films compare the rise of the Neo-Conservative movement in the United States and the radical Islamist movement, making comparisons on their origins and claiming similarities between the two. More controversially, it argues that the threat of radical Islamism as a massive, sinister organised force of destruction, specifically in the form of al-Qaeda, is a myth perpetrated by politicians in many countries—and particularly American Neo-Conservatives—in an attempt to unite and inspire their people following the failure of earlier, more utopian ideologies.

The Power of Nightmares has been praised by film critics in both Britain and the United States. Its message and content have also been the subject of various critiques and criticisms from conservatives and progressives.


Part 1: "Baby It's Cold Outside"[edit]

The first part of the series explains the origin of Islamism and Neo-Conservatism. It shows Egyptian civil servant Sayyid Qutb, depicted as the founder of modern Islamist thought, visiting the U.S. to learn about the education system, but becoming disgusted with what he saw as a corruption of morals and virtues in western society through individualism. When he returns to Egypt, he is disturbed by westernisation under Gamal Abdel Nasser and becomes convinced that in order to save society it must be completely restructured along the lines of Islamic law while still using western technology. He also becomes convinced that this can only be accomplished through the use of an elite "vanguard" to lead a revolution against the established order. Qutb becomes a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood and, after being tortured in one of Nasser's jails, comes to believe that western-influenced leaders can justly be killed for the sake of removing their corruption. Qutb is executed in 1966, but he influences the future mentor of Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri, to start his own secret Islamist group. Inspired by the 1979 Iranian revolution, Zawahiri and his allies assassinate Egyptian president Anwar Al-Sadat in 1981 in hopes of starting their own revolution. The revolution does not materialise, and Zawahiri comes to believe that the majority of Muslims have been corrupted not only by their western-inspired leaders, but Muslims themselves have been affected by jahilliyah and thus both may be legitimate targets of violence if they do not join him. They continued to have the belief that a vanguard was necessary to rise up and overthrow the corrupt regime and replace it with a pure Islamist state.

At the same time in the United States, a group of disillusioned liberals, including Irving Kristol and Paul Wolfowitz, look to the political thinking of Leo Strauss after the perceived failure of President Johnson's "Great Society". They come to the conclusion that the emphasis on individual liberty was the undoing of the plan. They envisioned restructuring America by uniting the American people against a common evil, and set about creating a mythical enemy. These factions, the Neo-Conservatives, came to power under the Reagan administration, with their allies Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, and work to unite the United States in fear of the Soviet Union. The Neo-Conservatives allege the Soviet Union is not following the terms of disarmament between the two countries, and, with the investigation of "Team B", they accumulate a case to prove this with dubious evidence and methods. President Reagan is convinced nonetheless.

Part 2: "The Phantom Victory"[edit]

In the second episode, Islamist factions, rapidly falling under the more radical influence of Zawahiri and his rich Saudi acolyte Osama bin Laden, join the Neo-Conservative-influenced Reagan Administration to combat the Soviet Union's invasion of Afghanistan. When the Soviets eventually pull out and when the Eastern Bloc begins to collapse in the late 1980s, both groups believe they are the primary architects of the "Evil Empire's" defeat. Curtis argues that the Soviets were on their last legs anyway, and were doomed to collapse without intervention.

The Islamists see it quite differently, and in their triumph believe that they had the power to create 'pure' Islamic states in Egypt and Algeria. Attempts to create perpetual Islamic states are blocked by force. The Islamists then try to create revolutions in Egypt and Algeria by the use of terrorism to scare the people into rising up. However, the people were terrified by the violence and the Algerian government uses their fear as a way to maintain power. In the end, the Islamists declare the entire populations of the countries as inherently contaminated by western values, and finally in Algeria turn on each other, each believing that other terrorist groups are not pure enough Muslims either.

In America, the Neo-Conservatives' aspirations to use the United States military power for further destruction of evil are thrown off track by the ascent of George H. W. Bush to the presidency, followed by the 1992 election of Bill Clinton leaving them out of power. The Neo-Conservatives, with their conservative Christian allies, attempt to demonise Clinton throughout his presidency with various real and fabricated stories of corruption and immorality. To their disappointment, however, the American people do not turn against Clinton. The Islamist attempts at revolution end in massive bloodshed, leaving the Islamists without popular support. Zawahiri and bin Laden flee to the sufficiently safe Afghanistan and declare a new strategy; to fight Western-inspired moral decay they must deal a blow to its source: the United States.

Part 3: "The Shadows in the Cave"[edit]

The Neo-Conservatives use the 11 September attacks, with al-Fadl's description of al-Qaeda, to launch the War on Terror.

The final episode addresses the actual rise of al-Qaeda. Curtis argues that, after their failed revolutions, bin Laden and Zawahiri had little or no popular support, let alone a serious complex organisation of terrorists, and were dependent upon independent operatives to carry out their new call for jihad. However, the film argues that in order to prosecute bin Laden in absentia for the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings, US prosecutors had to prove he was the head of a criminal organisation responsible for the bombings. They find a former associate of bin Laden, Jamal al-Fadl, and pay him to testify that bin Laden was the head of a massive terrorist organisation called "al-Qaeda". With the 11 September attacks, Neo-Conservatives in the new Republican government of George W. Bush use this created concept of an organisation to justify another crusade against a new evil enemy, leading to the launch of the War on Terrorism.

After the American invasion of Afghanistan fails to uproot the alleged terrorist network, the Neo-Conservatives focus inwards, searching unsuccessfully for terrorist sleeper cells in America. They then extend the war on "terror" to a war against general perceived evils with the invasion of Iraq in 2003. The ideas and tactics also spread to the United Kingdom where Tony Blair uses the threat of terrorism to give him a new moral authority. The repercussions of the Neo-Conservative strategy are also explored with an investigation of indefinitely-detained terrorist suspects in Guantanamo Bay, many allegedly taken on the word of the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance without actual investigation on the part of the United States military, and other forms of "preemption" against non-existent and unlikely threats made simply on the grounds that the parties involved could later become a threat. Curtis also makes a specific attempt to allay fears of a dirty bomb attack, and concludes by reassuring viewers that politicians will eventually have to concede that some threats are exaggerated and others altogether devoid of reality. "In an age when all the grand ideas have lost credibility, fear of a phantom enemy is all the politicians have left to maintain their power."


Adam Curtis, the director of The Power of Nightmares

Adam Curtis originally intended to create a film about conflict within the conservative movement between the ideologies of Neo-Conservative "elitism" and more individualist libertarian factions. During his research into the conservative movement, however, Curtis first discovered what he saw as similarities in the origins of the Neo-Conservative and Islamist ideologies. The topic of the planned documentary shifted to these latter two ideologies while the libertarian element was eventually phased out.[1] Curtis first pitched the idea of a documentary on conservative ideology in 2003 and spent six months compiling the films.[2][3] The final recordings for the three parts were made on 10 October, 19 October and 1 November 2004.[4][5][6]

As with many of Curtis's films, The Power of Nightmares uses a montage of various stock footage from the BBC archives, often for ironic effect, over which Curtis narrates.[1][2] Curtis has credited James Mossman as the inspiration for his montage technique, which he first employed for the 1992 series Pandora's Box,[7] while his use of humour has been credited to his first work with television as a talent scout for That's Life![2] He has also compared the entertainment format of his films to the American Fox News channel, claiming the network has been successful because of "[their viewers] really enjoying what they're doing".[1]

To help drive his points, Curtis includes interviews with various political and intellectual figures. In the first two films, former Arms Control and Disarmament Agency member Anne Cahn and former American Spectator writer David Brock accuse the Neo-Conservatives of knowingly using false evidence of wrongdoing in their campaigns against the Soviet Union and President Bill Clinton. Jason Burke, author of Al-Qaeda: Casting a Shadow of Terror, comments in The Shadows in the Cave on the failure to expose a massive terrorist network in Afghanistan. Additional interviews with major figures are added to drive the film's narrative. Neo-Conservatives William and Irving Kristol, Richard Pipes, Richard Perle and Michael Ledeen all appear to chronicle the Neo-Conservative perspective of the film's subject. The history of Islamism is discussed by the Institute of Islamic Political Thought's Azzam Tamimi, political scientist Roxanne Euben and Islamist Abdullah Anas.

The film's soundtrack includes at least two pieces from the films of John Carpenter, whom Curtis credited as inspiration for his soundtrack arrangement techniques,[7] as well as tracks from Brian Eno's Another Green World. There is also music by composers Charles Ives and Ennio Morricone, while Curtis has credited the industrial band Skinny Puppy for the "best" samples in the films.[8]

Airings and distribution[edit]

The Power of Nightmares was first aired in three consecutive weeks on BBC 2 in 2004 in the United Kingdom, beginning with Baby it's Cold Outside on 20 October, The Phantom Victory on 27 October and The Shadows in the Cave on 3 November, although the murder of Kenneth Bigley led the BBC to curtail their advertising prior to its airing.[4][5][6][9] It was rebroadcast, in January 2005, over three days, with the third film updated to take note of the Law Lords ruling from the previous December that detaining foreign terrorist suspects without trial was illegal.[10]

In May 2005, the film was screened in a 2½ hour edit at the Cannes Film Festival out of competition.[11] Pathé purchased distribution rights for this cut of the film.[3]

By 2008, the film had yet to be aired in the United States. Curtis has commented on this failure:

Something extraordinary has happened to American TV since September 11. A head of the leading networks who had better remain nameless said to me that there was no way they could show it. He said, 'Who are you to say this?' and then he added, 'We would get slaughtered if we put this out.' When I was in New York I took a DVD to the head of documentaries at HBO. I still haven't heard from him.[3]

Although the series has not been shown on U.S. television, its three episodes were shown in succession, on 26 February 2005, as part of the True/False Film Festival in Columbia, Missouri, with a personal appearance by Curtis.[12][13] It has also been featured at the 2006 Seattle International Film Festival and the San Francisco International Film Festival, with the latter awarding Curtis their Persistence of Vision Award.[14][15][16] The film was also screened at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York, and had a brief theatrical run in New York City during 2005.[17][18]

The films were first aired by CBC in Canada in April 2005, and again in July 2006.[19] The Australian channel SBS had originally scheduled to air the series in July 2005, but it was cancelled, reportedly in light of the London bombings of 7 July.[20][21] It was ultimately aired in December, followed by Peter Taylor's The New Al-Qaeda under the billing of a counter-argument to Curtis.[22]

In April 2005, Curtis expressed interest in an official DVD release due to a significant demand by viewers, but noted that his usual montage technique created serious legal problems with getting such a release secured.[23] An unofficial DVD release was made in the quarterly DVD magazine Wholphin over a period of three issues.[24][25][26]


Critical reaction[edit]

The Power of Nightmares received generally favourable reviews from critics.[27] Rotten Tomatoes reported that 86% of critics gave the film positive write-ups, with an average score of 8.1/10, based upon a sample of seven reviews.[28] At Metacritic, which assigns a normalised rating out of 100 to reviews from mainstream critics, the film received an average score of 78, based on six reviews.[27] Entertainment Weekly described the film as "a fluid cinematic essay, rooted in painstakingly assembled evidence, that heightens and cleanses your perceptions" while Variety called it "a superb, eye-opening and often absurdly funny deconstruction of the myths and realities of global terrorism".[29][30] The San Francisco Chronicle had an equally enthusiastic view of the film and likened it to "a brilliant piece in the Atlantic Monthly that's (thankfully) come to cinematic life".[31] The New York Times had a more skeptical review, unimpressed by efforts to compare attacks on Bill Clinton by American conservatives with Islamist revolutionary activities, claiming (in a review by literary and film critic A. O. Scott) that "its understanding of politics, geo- and national, can seem curiously thin".[18] In May 2005, Adam Curtis was quoted as saying that 94% of e-mails to the BBC in response to the film were supportive.[3]

The film was awarded a British Academy Television Award in the category of "Best Factual Series" in 2005.[32] Additional awards were given by the Director's Guild of Great Britain and the Royal Television Society.[33][34]

Political reaction[edit]

Progressive observers were particularly pleased with the film. Common Dreams had a highly positive response to the film and compared it to the "red pill" of the Matrix series, a comparison Curtis appreciated.[23][35] Commentary in The Village Voice was also mostly favorable, noting: "As partisan filmmaking it is often brilliant and sometimes hilarious – a superior version of Syriana."[36] The Nation, while offering a detailed critique on the film's content, said of the film itself "[it] is arguably the most important film about the 'war on terrorism' since the events of September 11".[37]

Among conservative and neoconservative critics in the United States, The Power of Nightmares has been described as "conspiracy theory", anti-American or both. David Asman of said, "We wish we didn't have to keep presenting examples of how the European media have become obsessively anti-American. But they keep pushing the barrier, now to the point of absurdity."[38] His views were shared by commentator Clive Davis, concluding his commentary on the film for National Review with "British producers, hooked on Chomskyite visions of 'Amerika' as the fount of all evil, are clearly not interested in even beginning to dig for the truth".[39] Other observers variously described the films as pushing a conspiracy theory. Davis and British commentator David Aaronovitch both explicitly labelled the film's message as a conspiracy theory, with the latter saying of Curtis "his argument is as subtle as a house-brick".[39][40] Attacks in this vein continued after the 7 July 2005 London bombings, with the Christian Broadcasting Network referencing the film as a source for claims by the "British left" that "the U.S. War on Terror was a fraud" and the Australia Israel & Jewish Affairs Council calling it "the loopiest, most extreme antiwar documentary series ever sponsored by the BBC".[21][41] In The Shadows in the Cave, Curtis stressed that he did not discount the possibility of any terrorist activity taking place, but that the threat of terrorism had been greatly exaggerated. He responded to accusations of creating a conspiracy theory that he believes that the alleged use of fear as a force in politics is not the result of a conspiracy but rather the subjects of the film "have stumbled on it".[23]

Peter Bergen, writing for The Nation, offered a detailed critique of the film. Bergen wrote that even if al-Qaeda is not as organised as the Bush Administration stressed, it is still a very dangerous force due to the fanaticism of its followers and the resources available to bin Laden. On Curtis's claim that al-Qaeda was a creation of neo-conservative politicians, Bergen said: "This is nonsense. There is substantial evidence that Al Qaeda was founded in 1988 by bin Laden and a small group of like-minded militants, and that the group would mushroom into the secretive, disciplined organisation that implemented the 9/11 attacks."[42] Bergen further claimed that Curtis's arguments serve as a defence of Bush's failure to capture bin Laden in the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan and his ignoring warnings of a terror attack prior to 11 September.[42]

Additional issues have been raised over Curtis's depiction of the Neo-Conservatives. Davis's article in National Review showed his displeasure with Curtis's depiction of Leo Strauss, claiming, "In Curtis's world, it is Strauss, not Osama bin Laden, who is the real evil genius."[39] Peter Bergen claimed the film exaggerated the influence of Strauss over Neo-Conservatism, crediting the political philosophy more to Albert Wohlstetter.[42] A 2005 review on Christopher Null's took issue with "The Phantom Victory"‍ '​s retelling of the attacks on Bill Clinton, crediting these more to the American Religious Right than the "bookish university types" of the Neo-Conservative movement.[43]

Daniel Pipes, a conservative American political commentator and son of Richard Pipes who was interviewed in the film, wrote that the film dismisses the threat posed by Communism to the United States as, in Pipes words, "only a scattering of countries that had harmless Communist parties, who could in no way threaten America." Pipes noted that the film adopts this conclusion without mentioning the Comintern, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, Klaus Fuchs or Igor Gouzenko.[44]

There are also allegations of omissions in the history described by the film. The absence of discussion of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was noticed by observers.[18][36] Davis claimed that Leo Strauss's ideas had been formed by his experiences in Germany during the Weimar Republic and alleged the film's failure to mention this was motivated by a wish to display Strauss as concerned with American suburban culture, like Qutb.[39]

Comparisons to Fahrenheit 9/11[edit]

After its release, The Power of Nightmares received multiple comparisons to Fahrenheit 9/11, American film-maker Michael Moore's 2004 critique on the first four years of George W. Bush's presidency of the United States. The Village Voice directly named The Power of Nightmares as "the most widely discussed docu agitprop since Fahrenheit 9/11".[36] The Nation and Variety both gave comments ranking Curtis's film superior to Fahrenheit and other political documentaries in various fields; the former cited Curtis's work being more "intellectually engaging" and "historically probing" while the latter cited "balance, broad-mindedness and sense of historical perspective".[30][37] Moore's work has also been used as a point of comparison by conservative critics of Curtis.[39]

Curtis has attempted to distinguish his work from Moore's film describing him (Moore) as "a political agitprop film-maker" arguing that "you'd be hard pushed to tell my politics from watching it (Power of Nightmares)".[3]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c Koehler, Robert. Neo-Fantasies and Ancient Myths: Adam Curtis on The Power of Nightmares. Cinema Scope Issue 23.
  2. ^ a b c Adams, Tim (24 October 2004). "The Exorcist". The Observer (London). Retrieved 14 July 2010. 
  3. ^ a b c d e Jeffries, Stuart (12 May 2005). "The film US TV networks dare not show". The Guardian (London). Retrieved 14 July 2010. 
  4. ^ a b "The Power of Nightmares: Baby it's Cold Outside". BBC Programme Catalogue. BBC. Retrieved 2007-07-18. 
  5. ^ a b "The Power of Nightmares: The Phantom Victory". BBC Programme Catalogue. BBC. Retrieved 2007-07-18. 
  6. ^ a b "The Power of Nightmares: The Shadows in the Cave". BBC Programme Catalogue. BBC. Retrieved 2007-07-18. 
  7. ^ a b "Adam Curtis: "I'm a modern journalist."". GreenCine. 2005-05-29. Retrieved 2007-08-06. 
  8. ^ Curtis, Adam (2005-01-24). "Power of Nightmares music". BBC News. Retrieved 2007-06-18. 
  9. ^ Beckett, Andy (2004-10-15). "The making of the terror myth". London: The Guardian. Retrieved 2007-06-06. 
  10. ^ "The Power of Nightmares: The Shadows In The Cave". BBC News. 2005-01-14. Retrieved 2007-06-06. 
  11. ^ "All the Films—Festival 2005". Cannes Film Festival. Archived from the original on 30 September 2007. Retrieved 2007-06-06. 
  12. ^ "Films 2005". True/False Film Festival. Archived from the original on 27 September 2007. Retrieved 2007-06-06. 
  13. ^ Bland, Pete (2005-03-01). "So True". Inside the Slash (Columbia Daily Tribune). Archived from the original on 9 April 2007. Retrieved 2007-06-06. 
  14. ^ "Films/The Power of Nightmares; The Rise of the Politics of Fear". Seattle International Film Festival. Retrieved 2007-06-18. 
  15. ^ "Power of Nightmares: The Rise of the Politics of Fear, The". San Francisco Film Society. Retrieved 2007-06-18. 
  16. ^ Thomson, David. "Secret Histories". San Francisco Film Society. Retrieved 2007-06-18. 
  17. ^ "The Power of Nightmares". Tribeca Film Festival. Retrieved 2014-02-28. 
  18. ^ a b c Scott, A. O. (2005-12-09). "Deconstructing the Realities of Politics and Terrorism". Movies. The New York Times. Retrieved 2007-07-18. (registration required (help)). 
  19. ^ "The Power of Nightmares". The Passionate Eye (CBC News). Retrieved 2007-06-06. 
  20. ^ "What's On—Documentary Series: The Power of Nightmares". SBS Television. Archived from the original on 13 June 2006. Retrieved 2007-06-06. 
  21. ^ a b Fleischer, Tzvi (August 2005). "Scribblings: Conspiracy Theories". The Review. AIJAC. Retrieved 2014-02-28. 
  22. ^ "What's On—Cutting Edge Terrorism Special". SBS Television. Archived from the original on 15 September 2007. Retrieved 2007-06-06. 
  23. ^ a b c Curtis, Adam (2005-04-26). "Power of Nightmares re-awakened". BBC News. Retrieved 2007-06-06. 
  24. ^ "Issue 2: Spring 2006". Archived from the original on 4 July 2007. Retrieved 2007-06-06. 
  25. ^ "Issue 3: Fall 2006". Archived from the original on 13 June 2007. Retrieved 2007-06-06. 
  26. ^ "Issue 4: Spring 2007". Archived from the original on 7 June 2007. Retrieved 2007-06-06. 
  27. ^ a b "Power of Nightmares: The Rise of the Politics of Fear, The: Reviews". Metacritic. CNET Networks. Retrieved 2008-07-22. 
  28. ^ "The Power of Nightmares". Rotten Tomatoes. IGN Entertainment. Retrieved 2008-07-22. 
  29. ^ Gleiberman, Owen (2005-12-14). "The Power of Nightmares: The Rise of the Politics of Fear (2005)". Entertainment Weekly. Retrieved 2007-07-18. 
  30. ^ a b Foundas, Scott (2005-04-13). "The Power Of Nightmares: The Rise Of The Politics Of Fear". Variety. Retrieved 2007-07-18. 
  31. ^ Mick LaSalle, Ruthe Stein, John McMurtrie, Jonathan Curiel (2005-06-10). "Film Clips". San Francisco Chronicle. Retrieved 2007-07-19. 
  32. ^ "Bafta TV Awards 2005: The winners". BBC News. 2005-04-17. Retrieved 2007-06-06. 
  33. ^ "Top UK directors award for Kinsey". BBC News. 2005-03-20. Retrieved 2007-06-06. 
  34. ^ "RTS Programme Awards 2004". Royal Television Society. Retrieved 2014-02-28. 
  35. ^ Hartman, Thom (2004-12-07). "Hyping Terror For Fun, Profit—And Power". Common Dreams. Retrieved 2007-06-06. 
  36. ^ a b c Hoberman, J. (2005-12-06). "The Phantom Menace". The Village Voice. Retrieved 2007-06-06. 
  37. ^ a b Bergen, Peter (2005-06-02). "Beware the Holy War". The Nation. p. 1. Retrieved 2007-07-18. 
  38. ^ Asman, David (2004-10-20). "Anti-American Europeans". (Fox News). Retrieved 2007-06-12. 
  39. ^ a b c d e Davis, Clive (2004-10-21). "The Power of Bad Television". National Review Online (National Review). Retrieved 2007-06-06. 
  40. ^ Aaronovitch, David (2004-10-19). "Al-Qaida is no dark illusion". London: The Guardian. Retrieved 2007-06-06. 
  41. ^ Hurd, Dale. "How Leftists Aid Radical Islam". (CBN News). Retrieved 2007-06-29. 
  42. ^ a b c Bergen, Peter (2005-06-02). "Beware the Holy War". The Nation. pp. 2–5. Retrieved 2007-06-29. 
  43. ^ Barsanti, Chris (2005). "The Power of Nightmares: The Rise of the Politics of Fear". Archived from the original on 17 October 2007. Retrieved 2007-07-18. 
  44. ^ Pipes, Daniel (15 October 2004). "The BBC Announces: There Is No Terrorist Threat". Retrieved 2008-07-22. 

External links[edit]