A friend asked me where they should start with Adam Curtis. It’s a good question. Curtis has been making films since the early 1980s and really came into his own in the 1990s and 2000s. His latest films Bitter Lake (2015) and HyperNormalisation (2016) constitute a break with the past insofar as he has taken his style to its end. What follows next may be a great decline, or it could be a radical new phase in his work. But let’s get back to the question.
The latest films may be hard-going for newcomers to the Curtis style. So I’m going to list my suggestions for viewers, who want to work their way through his films. The ranking is somewhat arbitrary, but I hope you’re left with some idea of where you might want to start. Of course, it’s not meant to be a what-to-watch manual Curtis guide. You can start wherever you wish. And the right film for you might not be on my list.
1. The Power Of Nightmares
I started with The Power Of Nightmares (2004), which traces the history of neoconservatism and radical Islamism, at the height of the ‘war on terror’. It is necessary viewing for anyone looking to understand today’s politics of fear. It can help viewers break down the idea of terrorism as a useful enemy for Western politicians. That’s not to say the film suggests the threat isn’t real, or should be taken lightly. It was made prior to the 7/7 suicide bombings on the London underground.
Mostly Curtis deciphers the pre-history of Islamism, as it emerged in Egypt with Sayyid Qutb and the Muslim Brotherhood, before looking at the rise of al-Qaeda following 9/11. He guides us through events in the Middle East touching upon the assassination of Anwar Sadat, the Iranian revolution, the Mujahideen resistance in Afghanistan and the Algerian civil war. Curtis brings this story together with the rise of the neocons from the classrooms of Leo Strauss to the centre of power in Washington.
I’ve picked The Power Of Nightmares as number one because I think it’s a great example of journalistic film making. Curtis is too often criticised for being lax with the facts. If you want to see more straightforward documentaries by Curtis, you do have plenty to choose from. Early triumphs include Pandora’s Box (1992), The Living Dead (1995), 25 Million Pounds (1996) and The Mayfair Set (1999). These are all cases where Adam Curtis rises above conventional standards.
2. The Century Of The Self
This was a major breakthrough in the Curtis body of work. I would rank The Century Of The Self (2002) alongside Bitter Lake as a watershed moment in Curtis’s films. Everything he made from 2002 to 2011 remains within the same model: a series exploring a history of ideas interwoven through our political and cultural landscape. What came before this can be seen as the forerunners of the same style.
Taking on the legacy of Freud head-on is a daunting and unpopular task. Instead, Curtis follows how Edward Bernays – Freud’s nephew – used psychological analysis to develop public relations and how these ideas were taken up by an array of economic and political forces. It starts with Bernays and takes us through the importance of propaganda to Nazism to the rise of radical psychology and self-help culture. Finally, the series concludes with the rise of the Third Way – Blair in the UK, Clinton in the US – and the use of public relations to a new kind of managerial politics.
Adam Curtis returns to the same ideas (and the same archive footage) again and again. The issues of individual freedom and how we run our affairs in a post-political age are recurring themes. The Century Of The Self is a key part of this focus. It sets the tone for his future work.
3. The Trap
This is clear with The Trap (2007), where Curtis takes apart the idea of freedom. Beginning with John Nash and the Cold War intellectual environment, the film explores game theory and how its pessimistic view of human nature would come to shape economic policy. Here Curtis also comes back to managerial politics and how the idea of negative liberty fed into performance targets in the UK introduced by John Major and then intensified under Tony Blair.
Arguably, the best episode is where Curtis goes back to Isaiah Berlin’s argument for negative freedom over positive liberty – basically the competition between individual and collective notions of freedom – and how this crucial distinction features in political events. Once again, Curtis looks at Algeria and Iran as cases where the idea of positive freedom motivated people to take up arms and break out from the tyranny of the past. But he also applies a critical analysis to negative freedom. In this regard, Curtis breaks with Berlin’s argument.
He takes us to post-Soviet Russia, where we find Boris Yeltsin and a corrupt elite tearing down the old order to make a quick buck. Curtis draws a line between economic shock therapy in Russia and the US occupation of Iraq. This is where Curtis is at his most subversive. He even concludes that the West needs to come back to positive freedom and reinvent it.
4. All Watched Over By Machines Of Loving Grace
Released in 2011 after the Occupy Wall Street protests, All Watched Over By Machines Of Loving Grace breaks down the idea of self-regulating networks of free individuals and how this vision fits comfortably in utopian strains on the left and the right. Notably, Ayn Rand and her influence features heavily, but also a look at the left-wing commune movement and how it tried to eliminate all boundaries and hierarchical structures. In short, Curtis was thinking about Occupy and taking apart the horizontal model of political organisation.
His central argument is that the self-regulating network is not going to be enough to confront power. In fact, the attempts to build new systems without power fail precisely because they cannot get away from it. Curtis takes this and looks at the Asian financial crisis of the 1990s and how the neoliberal order comes out of the same thinking. The argument goes to the heart of political problems, not just the economic system we live in, but what kind of alternative we want.
All of these films can be found online. I recommend Thought Maybe, where almost everything by Adam Curtis can be found and watched in its entirety.