'Gunsmoke' and mirrors
A new doc tracks "terror" back to its origins.

By Susan Gerhard

MUCKRAKERS AND FILMMAKERS love the smoking gun, that single piece of evidence that so tidily ties disparate plot elements together. But they aren't the only ones – the political philosopher at the center of Adam Curtis's The Power of Nightmares loved Gunsmoke. In this latest by the BBC-funded documentarian, whose political analyses have dug up all manner of muck and organized it into elegant essays, we learn that the series in which Marshal Matt Dillon coolly cured Dodge City of lawlessness week after week was the favorite of a University of Chicago professor who just happens to have been the seminal figure of the neoconservative movement today. His name was Leo Strauss, and apparently, he liked the idea of absolute truth even if it was complete fiction. The man who would influence the likes of Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, and the Kristol clan to fight a cold war with hot rhetoric would rush home after seminars to eat a quick meal and seat himself on the couch in time to catch every second of the battle between good and evil in late-19th-century Kansas. Gunsmoke was his show – and you could say that "gun smoke and mirrors" is his legacy.

Curtis uses only a single photo of Strauss throughout his three-part series, and he doesn't tire of using the tried-and-true zoom to indicate some fundamentally ambiguous evil lurking within that photo. But he didn't have to: The many Strauss apprentices, Irving Kristol and Richard Pipes among them, are scary enough as they speak of their global agenda to the British interview crew. Curtis's now-signature style of "illustrated journalism" – his ransacking of the BBC and Hollywood archives for the English-speaking world's most awful moments, from Christian aerobics videos to outrageously orientalizing entertainment clips – lift off from the talking heads, adding essential visual critique and at times even comedy to the film's sober political assessments.

The argument builds from the conclusion Curtis reached at the close of his exhaustive 2002 series on the history of public relations, The Century of the Self: the alienated hordes, having liberated their "human potential" through est or exercise, were left more vulnerable than ever to the mass marketing of products or politics. Curtis's mode this time is to compare and contrast, focusing on the neoconservative and Islamist movements through the past half century, which, Curtis argues, emerged from the same fear of moral weakness. Egyptian dissident Sayyid Qutb became radicalized after a 1949 visit to Greeley, Colo., that left him hating America for its materialism, vulgarity, and growing influence on his culture. But his Islamist movement, according to Curtis, would grow, transplant itself to Afghanistan to help fight off the Soviet Union, then dwindle long before Sept. 11, 2001. The World Trade Center bombing was the work of a small splinter group, which the neocons would reinvent as a vast "network." Just as the zeal of neocons for finding phantom Soviet weapons would increase as any real threat from the Soviet Union diminished, the less real evidence of threat al-Qaeda represented, the more threatening and wide-ranging U.S. leaders, led by neocon handlers, would find them.

Covering well-trammeled decades, Curtis offers us some great surprises – first, by shuffling the heroes-villains deck. Kissinger, Nixon, Bush the Senior, and even Bill Clinton (previously dismissed for ending welfare to please Dick Morris's focus groups in The Century of the Self) are given strangely heroic roles. In this essay, the enemy of my enemy (the neocons) is my friend. But the film is at its most brilliant when simultaneously deploying its best audio-visuals for humor, tragedy, and poignancy, all competing for our emotional attention. As when Ronald Reagan dedicates the space shuttle Columbia's 1982 journey to the freedom fighters of Afghanistan, with the sounds of 2001: A Space Odyssey playing on the soundtrack and the recent memory of Columbia's eventual crash playing in our frontal lobes. Two decades later, and in Reagan's lifetime, the space shuttle and the land of those freedom fighters would both go up in flames.

S.F. Indiefest presents 'The Power of Nightmares,' opening Fri/10, Roxie Cinema, 3117 16th St., S.F. $4-$8. (415) 863-1087. See Rep Clock for show times.