'Hypernormalisation': Film Review
British documentary maker Adam Curtis weaves an epic, real-life sci-fi conspiracy thriller involving Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, Vladimir Putin, Jane Fonda, global terrorism and “post-truth” politics.
Imagine, just for one terrifying moment, that Donald Trump is a political genius. What if his incoherent messages, brazen lies and provocative outbursts are all part of a deliberate strategy to confound his enemies and energize his supporters? This is the “post-truth” world that unorthodox British documentarian Adam Curtis attempts to explain in his latest timely, audacious, archive-driven essay film, Hypernormalisation. Trump is just one player in a multi-decade saga that also features Hillary and Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, Vladimir Putin, Bashar al-Assad, Tony Blair, George Bush, Jane Fonda and Patti Smith.
As a BBC employee with access to the corporation’s extensive library of news and documentary footage, Curtis makes his films on a very modest budget. Editing and narrating them himself in his seductively smooth, patrician tones, he is very much a DIY auteur director. But his ambitiously grand ideas and his unique montage style, which makes extensive use of music and jarring juxtapositions, have earned him multiple awards and a global cult following. Last year, Oscar-winning filmmaker Errol Morris tweeted, “I want to be Adam Curtis when I grow up.”
At close to three hours long, Hypernormalisation feels like a greatest hits compilation of familiar Curtis themes — the decline of political power in a corporate age, the rise of global terrorism, America’s tortuous secret history in the Middle East, the hollow narcissism of cyberspace. As ever, his arguments are selective, subjective and powered by questionable leaps of logic. But this also is a dazzling and thought-provoking film that blurs the line between op-ed journalism and mesmerizing audio-visual art. It is currently available to view for free at the BBC website and other online sources. As with previous Curtis works, like The Power of Nightmares and Bitter Lake, it also is likely to screen at future film festivals.
Hypernormalisation is titled after a term coined by the Russian-born Berkeley professor Alexei Yurchak to describe the dying years of the Soviet Union, when both government and people agreed to jointly pretend that the rotten old Communist system was functioning normally. The film’s core thesis is that, somewhere around the mid-1970s, politicians began to realize the “paralyzing complexity” of modern society was too confusing and alarming for most citizens to grasp. In response, they “constructed a simpler version of the world in order to hang onto power,” spreading propaganda narratives that would eventually come back and explode in their faces.
This thesis unfolds along on two key interwoven timelines, one in America and the other in the Middle East. In 1970s New York, catastrophic bankruptcy led to a stealth transfer of power to the banks, allowing real estate developers like Trump to begin the city’s transformation from grungy low-rent art colony to super-rich ghetto. In Syria, meanwhile, Henry Kissinger’s purposely deceptive policy of “constructive ambiguity” drove the Syrian dictator Hafaz al-Assad — father of the current president Bashar — to abandon his utopian plans for a unified pan-Arab movement, turning instead to state terrorism. By pioneering the use of suicide bombers to drive Americans from the Middle East, Curtis suggests, Assad unwittingly seeded the rise of jihadist groups like Al-Qaeda and Islamic State.
Blithely defying official accounts, Curtis blames Syria and its allies in the region for numerous atrocities against Western targets, including the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988. But he argues that U.S. and U.K. leaders found it easier to demonize toothless marginal figures like Libya’s Colonel Gaddafi, who relished his new role as global supervillain, than to deal with the much more intractable real threat of Syria.
Meanwhile, in America, the defeated revolutionary dreams of the counterculture retreated into more individualistic trends like the Jane Fonda-led fitness boom and the emergent internet, whose ego-stroking algorithms began to seal people up in a comforting, unchallenging, narcissistic echo chamber. Cyberspace, in Curtis’ apocalyptic verdict, offers a mass hallucination of democratic empowerment whose sole purpose is to enrich vast Silicon Valley corporations.
In the 21st century, Hypernormalisation concludes, we are paying a steep price for all this smug self-delusion and toothless political theater. The cyber activists behind the Occupy movement and Arab Spring uprisings soon found themselves out of their depth in the dark, messy, bloody arena of real-world revolution. Western politicians have become ensnared by their own simplistic fantasies, leaving a power vacuum for would-be demagogues like Putin and Trump to fill with their cynically warped versions of reality.
Of course, it remains highly debatable how much of this counter-historical narrative is demonstrably true and how much is pure conspiratorial smoke and mirrors. Curtis is rather too fond of using grand unifying theories to explain the military-industrial complexity of modern life, backing up his claims with superficial symmetries and glib generalizations, while sidestepping much of the dense socio-economic analysis required by serious journalism. If humanity truly is trapped inside a dreamworld of simplistic delusions and “post-truth” propaganda, Curtis himself may well be part of the problem rather than the solution. He covers a lot of ground, but the map is definitely not the territory.
These are not fatal flaws if we accept Curtis as primarily a film-based artist rather than a rigorously objective documentarian. He personally rejects the artist label, but a key selling point of Hypernormalisation is its hypnotic, loopy, immersive audio-visual style. Curtis edits to a dreamlike rhythm, using long passages of trippy ambient music and ironically cheery vintage pop hits to accompany sense-jarring footage of terrorist bombs or politicians caught in unguarded pre-interview mode, images which serve as recurring motifs in his films. His use of movie clips including Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker, Brian de Palma’s Carrie and Michael Bay’s The Rock to underscore his points is also a witty touch.
A rich gumbo of occult conspiracy theory, dystopian science-fiction thriller and Noam Chomsky-style Marxist critique, Hypernormalisation is highly compelling even when its arguments are not wholly convincing. Curtis also has a knack for unearthing juicy WTF sub-plots which deserve their own documentaries, such as the U.S. military’s alleged fabrication of UFO sightings to disguise new stealth aircraft tests, or the transformation of shadowy Kremlin insider Vladislav Surkov from avant-garde theater director to “Putin’s Rasputin.” This fascinating assemblage of half-explored ideas should inspire curious viewers to conduct further research of their own, which is an entirely healthy and positive response.
A singular figure in modern filmmaking, Adam Curtis would not enjoy being likened to Donald Trump, but there are some crucial parallels. He may be maddening, arrogant and highly subjective, but he is never boring.
Production company: BBC
Director-screenwriter-editor: Adam Curtis
Producer: Sandra Gorel
Executive producer: Victoria Jaye
Music supervisor: Gavin Miller
Not rated, 166 minutes