You can bet that Adam Curtis was one of the few people unsurprised by Donald Trump’s victory in the 2016 presidential election.
The British documentarian’s latest, HyperNormalisation (screening Saturday, April 22, at 3 p.m. at Northwest Film Forum), posits Trump as the culmination of a process 40 years in the making—one that has gradually eroded the sense of a shared public reality and shattered the notion that politics can be a force for change in the world. He also, judging from the films he’s made over the last 15 years, tends to expect the worst.
If the prospect of a nearly three-hour film about Trump feels like cinematic masochism (and it should), don’t worry: The man himself makes a cameo in the first 15 minutes, pops back up about halfway through, and only becomes a real focus in the final half-hour.
Like much of Curtis’ work, HyperNormalisation tries to tie together disparate strands of geopolitics and technology, using found footage and the director’s own doom-laden narration to craft an alternate-history tapestry. We start off in 1975, as New York City teeters on the edge of bankruptcy and Henry Kissinger diplomatically toys with Syrian President Hafez al-Assad. One event kicks off the eventual domination of politicians by bankers and financiers (including Trump), while the other leads to the creation of suicide bombing as a tactic in the Middle East and beyond.
That’s a tremendous oversimplification of Curtis’ meandering thesis, and to the density of information that he relies on to present it. There’s room for Patti Smith, Grateful Dead lyricist-turned-cyber-revolutionary John Perry Barlow, Vladimir Putin (of course Vladimir Putin) and murderous yakuza. There are clips of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker and Michael Bay’s The Rock. A Jane Fonda workout video is intercut with footage of the execution of Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu. That last one might be a bit much.
Perhaps the most fascinating, even sympathetic figure in Curtis’ tale is Muammar Gaddafi. Here, the Libyan dictator comes off as a lunatic but hapless demagogue who became, in the 1980s and beyond, a useful idiot for successive American governments in need of either a terrorist supervillain or, surreally, a voice of moderation in the Arab world. His demonization, rehabilitation, and re-vilification is a prime example of what Ronald Reagan called “perception management”—what we know today as “alternative facts.”
Plenty of fascinating tidbits emerge, whether they’re integral to Curtis’ overall point or not. Did you know that Daniel Pearl, the victim of the first terrorist beheading to be uploaded to the internet, was the son of Judah Pearl, a computer scientist whose work was integral to the growth of the world wide web? Did you know that when Gaddafi came to New York to address the United Nations in 2012, he rented a spot to erect his grand tent from none other than Donald Trump?
These factoids make for good cocktail party banter, but they also reflect the ways that HyperNormalisation lacks some of the focus of Curtis’ earlier films. The Power of Nightmares (2004) chillingly followed the parallel spread of Islamic fundamentalism and American Neoconservatism from the 1940s onward, while The Century of the Self, Curtis’ 2002 masterpiece, showed how the invention of the public relations industry by Sigmund Freud’s nephew paved the way for the manufactured desires that modern capitalism relies on to survive. Both are must-sees.
HyperNormalisation gets its title from a term used in the Soviet Union in the 1980s to describe the ways the citizenry avoided confronting the fact that the utopian dreams of Communism had failed. The phrase also seems an apt description of the way in which the Trumpian dismissal of truth as a concept has become a regular part of our daily lives.