IN HIS EARLY-1930s U.S.A. Trilogy, John Dos Passos uses a ragbag of stylistic and narrative techniques, including collages of newspaper clippings, song lyrics and short biographies of public figures, to tell the story of the historical development of American society during the first three decades of the 20th century. The influence of Dos Passos’ trilogy was far-reaching, and had a profound effect on Jean Paul-Sartre in addition to the science-fiction novelist and short story writer John Brunner. But it also penetrated and became embedded in the young mind of the documentary filmmaker Adam Curtis, who was given the book as a thirteen-year-old by his father. In a 2012 interview with Film Comment, Curtis said that you “can trace back everything I do to that novel [U.S.A.] because it’s all about grand history, individual experience, their relationship. And also collages, quotes from newsreels, cinema, newspapers.”
Following the publication of U.S.A. and the murder of his friend José Robles during the Spanish Civil War, Dos Passos underwent what can only be described as an extraordinary ideological transformation that flung him from far on the political left to the conservative right. He worked on the campaigns of Barry Goldwater and Richard Nixon and found new friends and allies in William F. Buckley, Jr. and his ambitious team at the fledgling National Review. Dos Passos maintained, however, that wherever he found himself on the ideological spectrum he was, first and foremost, concerned with the freedom of the individual.
In a 2012 interview with Film Comment, Curtis said that you “can trace back everything I do to that novel [U.S.A.] because it’s all about grand history, individual experience, their relationship. And also collages, quotes from newsreels, cinema, newspapers.”
It’s this individual freedom, and specifically our understanding of what that freedom implies, that Curtis looks to deconstruct in his three-part 2007 documentary, The Trap: What Happened to Our Dream of Freedom?. His hypothesis is, to put it mildly, a bold one, and draws a line that begins in the bleak and paranoid days of the Cold War and travels through the years and the economic and political thought of figures largely on the right, from Friedrich Hayek to Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. What Curtis essentially argues is that the models of game theory advanced by the Nobel-prize-winning economist John Nash and applied with zeal during the Cold War were willingly introduced into fields in which the first principles did not apply. To put it another way, these mathematical models, when applied in the context of armed conflict, necessarily operate on the basis that both sides are, so to say, out only for themselves; in the daily interactions of individuals that is not necessarily the case. This is exemplified in some of the early efforts to put the Prisoner’s Dilemma thought experiment to the test. Though the rational thing to do in each case is to betray the other party, very few, if any, of the early participants did so.
If you bring these theories to play in the economic sphere, Curtis says, the effects of holding such a depressingly bleak view of human existence are significant. The free market, which has at its heart the assumption that individuals will behave in a rational self-interested way, serves only to make the ultra-rational and the already-wealthy eye-wateringly rich; the poor and the more compassionate among us become poorer. Curtis’s central idea is high flown if nothing else, and ascribes a popular current of political thought and the administrations of figures on both sides of the Atlantic, including Tony Blair and Bill Clinton, to a handful of equations scrawled on blackboards in the depths of a Cold War nuclear facility. But nevertheless Curtis argues his point in a persuasive and entertaining and memorable way, even if he doesn’t bother to waste any time (in a three-hour documentary film, no less) presenting any alternatives to his elaborate proposition.
So formulaic is Curtis’s signature style that he at times threatens to become a parody of himself. At the very least, his taste for flat declarative sentences, archival footage and the unsettling tones of Burial, Nine Inch Nails and Brian Eno insists upon the creation of “Adam Curtis Bingo”.
But of course, that isn’t his style, and so formulaic is his signature style that he at times threatens to become a parody of himself. At the very least, his taste for flat declarative sentences, archival footage and the unsettling tones of Burial, Nine Inch Nails and Brian Eno insists upon the creation of “Adam Curtis Bingo”. When Curtis’s technique works, his films take on a dreamlike and hallucinatory quality; when it doesn’t his work seems self-indulgent: there are scenes in Bitter Lake that are almost unwatchable. Thankfully The Trap is an example of the former. Like Curtis’s best documentary film, the exceptional The Power of Nightmares, the style of The Trap glues together a narrative whose constituent parts are sometimes weakly held together while also injecting a little dark humour into an otherwise rather earnest work.
The conservative Spectator columnist James Delingpole once suggested that Curtis had created the “televisual equivalent of a drunken late-night Wikipedia binge with pretensions to narrative coherence”, which is not completely inaccurate. But neither is it necessarily a criticism: Curtis himself describes what he does as finding “new facts and data, things you haven’t thought about, and turning them into new stories.” In The Trap, Curtis typically takes a grand and sweeping look at the shifting sands of history, but the film nevertheless represents one of the better efforts of a consistently interesting and entertaining filmmaker.