Well, it happened. As predicted by no one and everyone, Donald Trump—a character long found clinging to public recognition and New York’s shady real estate history—has groped and inherited his way to the closest thing we have to world domination. As a distant observer, watching MSNBC narrate the flood of red gushing over the electoral map felt to me a little like watching an impressive CGI destruction scene in an end-of-the-world movie. I have still met exactly zero Trump supporters in person, and from my well-insulated Oxford cocoon, the series of events unfolding in the aftermath feel fictional. A casual scroll through the Internet is now littered with a million explanations of how this happened (because, let’s be honest, no one was really not surprised—including the man of the hour), and mainstream consensus seems some distance away. It’s racism. It’s misogyny. It’s class. It’s the economy, stupid. It’s not the economy, stupid. It’s digital. It’s neoliberalism. It’s globalization. It’s immigration. It’s media. It’s populist vindication. Regressions have been run, the think piece engine is in overdrive, and the air is thick with pointed fingers. As we gingerly step over this significant-feeling threshold into a wilderness of uncertainty, many look back for the reassurance of a single, rational explanation. There is no better time than this for a nearly three-hour-long Adam Curtis documentary. His latest, HyperNormalisation, flips a choice finger at rationalization, opting instead to disassemble the world we think we know and plunge us into the “strange and often fake and corrupt” one that we really live in.
There is a very particular style to Curtis’s documentaries, and HyperNormalisation continues in the same vein as his past work—notably Bitter Lake and All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace—both thematically and aesthetically. The entirety of HyperNormalisation is narrated in his own voice, imbued with the ominous certainty of an all-seeing oracle gazing calmly into a complex and misconstrued history. He narrates in the past tense, making sweeping connections among world events, political ideologies, techno-utopian influences, and individual actors. Underneath his narration bubbles a sensory cauldron of meticulously selected archival footage that ranges in content from real life blood-drenched warzones to the moment in which a bucket of pig’s blood is dumped over Carrie in Brian De Palma’s 1976 film. There is also a soundtrack, and it is at times openly leading—guiding the viewer through narrative revelations with sharp notes of foreboding—and at others dissonant—layering airy synth-pop over graphic camera footage. All of these elements, as well as his signature all-caps title screens, fuse together to form an all-consuming experience.
HyperNormalisation thus tells the story of how world elites have grotesquely oversimplified complex events into a series of lies and delusions that distort reality and further reduce populations into the fearful, selfish actors that markets already see them as. It is not lost on the viewer that Curtis’s documentaries themselves are a type of attempt to bring clarity, and by extension simplicity, to the vast range of interconnected “truths” vying for attention, but it is a distinct relief that he doesn’t cloak this attempt in false neutrality. Rather, the narrative takes sides, opposing what it maps out as mass-manipulation and the fragmentation of society at the clumsy hands of corporate and political power.
As in All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace, Curtis casts this new face of politics as an increasingly conservative one, guided by private interests reliant on emerging technology to track people and predict disasters:
“In a world where the overriding aim was now stability, politics became just part of a wider system of managing the world. The old idea of democratic politics that gave a voice to the weak against the powerful was eroded and resentment began to quietly grow out on the edges of society. But the new system had a dangerous flaw, because in the real world, not everything could be predicted by reading data from the past.”
Reading Curtis’s narrative outside of the film’s context can sometimes make him sound like a sinister conspiracy theorist. Until, that is, you find yourself reading about things like Ada—the complex, secret algorithm that was fed polling numbers and intricate ground-level voter data to produce guidance on “virtually every strategic decision Clinton aides made.” Then, you wonder, when is his next documentary coming out?