The first episode of this film series from Adam Curtis consists largely of him telling us – with the help of some random, flashy archive footage – that we’ve been conditioned to be anxious for decades and that everything is completely terrible and that we’ve been lead to believe there’s no way out. So no, this isn’t going to be your ‘put your feet up and switch off for an hour’ type watch, rather a ‘fill your boots with existential dread’ one instead.
But it is worth giving a go if you’re feeling up for it. Taking us on a journey from the post-war years to the present day, Curtis explores the rise of populism and how the establishment goes about quashing uprisings to maintain their ideals for social order. And even though eight hours spread out over six episodes seems like plenty of time, Curtis sure does pack a lot in, barely stopping for breath (or to let the angst set in).
He begins by exploring China’s move to become one of the biggest capitalist powers, then on to anxious America, exploring the conspiracy laden presidency of JFK, and on through Watergate via a few Valium drugged years. Then we move into the more recent tech boom, giving way to mass surveillance and put further power in the hands of the bankers.
This being Curtis, he doesn’t tell his tale in a linear fashion, preferring instead to jump about from scenes of rockets, to 50s dancehalls. And fair enough, the never ending arty archive clips may be a bit overkill for some viewers, but it remains a fascinating look at power structures and how they impact the lives of us ordinary people.
As with most Adam Curtis projects, this got mixed reviews. Whilst The Guardian’s Lucy Mangan calls it “dazzling,” and says “It is vanishingly rare to be confronted by work so dense, so widely searching and ambitious in scope, so intelligent and respectful of the audience’s intelligence,” The Telegraph’s Ed Power calls it “wildly entertaining, often hypnotic, but completely implausible.” And The Times’ Hugo Rifkind is with him, calling Curtis “exhausting,” saying “somehow he manages to simultaneously be exceedingly, grippingly watchable and almost impenetrable.” But Ed Cumming of the Independent clearly enjoys the disorientation, calling the series “fascinating.”
First shown February 2021. You can watch the trailer by pressing play on the show image, or by clicking here.