On 20 October, I watched the third American presidential debate with an enormous bowl of popcorn and a beer. This, I thought, is what the election campaign has come to: a cheap night’s entertainment that leaves you feeling ill. A few nights later, I found myself in the same position, this time watching Adam Curtis’s newly released BBC documentary, HyperNormalisation (2016).
Both the debates and Curtis’s film are kaleidoscopic gyres of spectacle and reality: the film looks to phenomena like the war in Syria, Brexit, the migrant crisis, and Donald Trump, asking how we got to a ‘fake world’ that we accept as normal. While the debates eschewed substance in favour of a rhetorical food fight, the documentary embarked on a surreal montage while departing from journalistic convention. Curtis oscillates between fascinating looks into the public relations machinery of the US government and the brutalities that accompany it. He offers a prismatic image of the complexities of sectarian violence, and shows how, in the Reagan era, the US manipulated the public image of Muammar Gaddafi at whim, to further its own global power. In one moment he is an ally, the next a lunatic despot. This is a perfect set up for Curtis to unfold even deeper, more painful realities. One sequence shows politicians ventriloquizing vacant half-truths, dreamt up by speechwriters, before Curtis cuts to Libya, where rows of dead children have accumulated – victims of an American bombing campaign.
HyperNormalisation suspends you in nauseating limbo between reality and fiction. Non-coincidentally, Donald Trump plays a starring role. For Curtis, the figure of Trump signifies the takeover of American politics by money – and when he goes bankrupt he still maintains his Midas-like public image, the power of showmanship and media only reinforcing illusions of wealth and power.