Review: Written by Rian Whitton.
The controversial documentary maker Adam Curtis has returned with an ambitious, if somewhat convoluted, thesis on the artifice of our modern political discourse. In his alternative history, Curtis argues that geopolitics, finance and technological utopianism have coalesced to create a vacuous pseudo-reality, in substitution for the complex human drama we feel increasingly helpless to change.
From Kissinger to Trump, from artificial intelligence to the collapse of the Soviet Union, the 166 minutes running time sees Curtis surf through histories and subjects with impressive fluidity. But, like Samson tearing down the pillars of Dagon, the sheer immensity of Curtis’s subject matter buries him in an imperfect work that falters in its most necessary aim; to provide insight to the viewer.
On the plus-side, Curtis knows how to tell individual stories with a flair and panache missing in most filmmakers. Viewed on their own terms, the collection of stories he presents are compelling, even if they fail to form a coherent cross-narrative.
Curtis’s work to often resembles a cosmopolitan safari for fashionable opinions and tropes. US Government both malevolent and incompetent. Check. Ambient music creating a sense of dread. Check. Bankers malevolent. Check. Reference to obscure Russian science fiction. Check.
The conglomeration of these irritating characteristics leads to a piece that is, on the one hand, oversimplified by a conspiratorial worldview, while also obfuscating the finer details of the subjects discussed.
A further problem is structure. While Curtis is honest in his attempt to provide a subjective and alternative understanding of history, as opposed to a traditional documentary, the length and division of the film makes it feel you are watching over 10 different storylines all with their own protagonists. Weaving these paths together is like herding cats, and Curtis pays little effort to linking them up.
There are also some sloppy factual errors expressed blithely throughout the film, the most glaring being the assertion that many of Saddam’s weapons came from Washington. The Soviet Union, France and China provided the vast bulk of Iraqi conventional weapons, with the US contributing 1 per cent throughout Saddam’s entire reign. Curtis making this error suggests he is either cavalier about accuracy, or is quite happy to use false assertions to oil a fashionably anti-Washington theme.
The primary problem with this documentary is the fragility of its central argument; that politicians, in the absence of workable ideologies, have limited themselves to managing and stabilizing the world. Of course, the primacy of creating a stable environment in an anarchical order rests with the very genesis of the early state, as described in Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan.
The concept of political ideology being able to change the world, by contrast, develops only in the modern era, and by 1989, is shown to be at least a little problematic. Curtis never fleshes out a comparative period where people could handle complexity and politics was the answer, and so his characteristion of the modern world as somehow lacking a genuine democratic platform falls flat.
The idea; that finance has taken over politics, that people avoid the complexities of the world, that the power of spectacle is designed to separate the population from a reality they can change; none of this is original. We have heard the same themes expressed by 19th century bohemians, 20th century situationists and 21st century counter-culturalists. The fact that we seem to reeducate ourselves about these apparent truths every 10 years and pass them off as modern, might point to our own shallow political discourse, rather than the machinations of those in power.
In one of the most jarring scenes in the film, snippets of a falling Soviet Union are juxtaposed against a Jane Fonda workout routine. It is a further example of Curtis’s cinematic proficiency, but while this postmodern exert will please some, those who hope to understand the world at a granular level will be left perplexed. With the long running time and multiple stories, Curtis’s overuse of artistic license suffocates the possibility of understanding politics.
If Curtis wants us to tangle with the complexities of the world, he will have trim his own indulgences, and like the rest of us, look beyond the power of the spectacle.