If you’re wondering how you’ve become desensitised to the horrors of war on the daily news, how politics has descended into a limp and meaningless reality TV show, and how truth no longer holds sway over false, then HyperNormalisation may offer some explanation. Adam Curtis’s mammoth three-hour BBC iPlayer documentary takes us on a dizzying journey through the labyrinth of post-truth political puppetry, where those we assume hold power are merely marionettes. We, the public, not knowing whom to believe, consume the simplistic myths we’re fed of goodies and baddies in order to retreat from the overwhelming complexity of 21st century reality.
Curtis employs his signature trick of connecting a mishmash of hypnotic archival footage and seemingly unrelated themes into an engrossing narrative. He explores how power shifted from politicians to bankers in the ’70s, the solipsistic effects of social media echo chambers, untold stories of the younger and elder Assads, the bewildering rise of Trump, the rise and fall of the Occupy movement, the Arab Spring, Prozac, Brexit, the emergence of suicide bombing as a weapon against the West (despite the Qu’ran prohibiting suicide), and even the US government’s deliberate propagation of UFO conspiracies to conceal military arsenal. Underlying all these themes and endlessly entertaining historical tangents is one eerie assertion: the power of truth is dying. In replacement, we have the government tactic of ‘perception management’ – the theatrical black-and-whiting of complex events by those in charge, producing a make-believe story where the world is neatly divided into good and evil.
HyperNormalisation forces the viewer to pinpoint the line between reality and fiction. But the closer you look, the more it disappears – perhaps most poignantly demonstrated by a chapter on the Iraq war. In 2002, Number 10 finally had the evidence they required for war; an alleged source close to Saddam Hussein described containers packed with VX and sarin nerve gas. But in a surreal turn of events, an MI6 agent later noticed that the details provided had been plucked out of a cheesy 1996 blockbuster, called The Rock, featuring Nicholas Cage and Sean Connery.
Curtis does not hide from us the gruesome macabre imagery of bomb blasts and blood-laden streets. He strives to jar the viewer out of our desensitised escapism. Yet interspersed among these harrowing scenes are depictions of the calm, almost tacky kind of world we retreat into. Footage of Soviet executions are muddled together with Jane Fonda fitness videos. A suicide bomb attack is disrupted by shots of rotating fairground rides. Curtis masterfully pulls us back and forth from the bloody to the sanitised, and in doing so demonstrates how easily we flick between the horrors of the world and our cots of consumption, sheltered by cybernetic bubbles that serve to reinforce our narcissism and complacency.
Sometimes it feels like HyperNormalisation is playing precisely the same trick as those in charge: baffling and bombarding us with collages and montages while offering coherent conclusions that, in our confused state, we’re all too eager to accept as our new reality. No doubt Curtis would expect us to challenge his story, and avoid falling into the same trap he’s warning us against. The crucial step, he claims, is the capacity to imagine an alternative system, but it may take a while. Once you’ve left the cave, it takes time for your eyes to adjust to the sun.