Adam Curtis, who has been well represented on TV screens since most students were at nursery, unleashed his latest three-part series on Monday. While his style is quite familiar by now, it still provides plenty of cranial stimulation, marrying his experience in television and as an Oxford politics tutor to craft deep political stories.
Each episode paints a relatively self-contained section of an overall narrative, carrying the audience alongside with its blend of illuminating, yet not always literal, archive footage and interviews. By the end of each series the viewer is confronted with something far more complete: an even bigger picture than anticipated, telling a story not lacking in captivating characters or implication. Using roughly the same template since the BAFTA-winning Pandora’s Box in 1992, he has returned to BBC Two with All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace.
The most recent previous efforts of Curtis have investigated terrorism and modern freedom, but this series runs several stories of technology and powerful people alongside each other until they smash together, making an almighty and terrifying mess. The first strand looks at the dreams the pioneers of Silicon Valley had for their computers, and the power to not only analyse the vast activities of humans, but also to deliver them into a predictable stability despite continuing on as individuals.
In the second storyline, we follow Ayn Rand, the objectivist political philosopher, as her thought attracted both criticism and admirers in Cold War America. Amongst these admirers was up-and-coming economist Alan Greenspan, who would later find himself at the ear of President Bill Clinton at the start of his presidency, as well as the Silicon Valley computer industry leadership. The presidency of Clinton forms the last tale, charting his initial hopes of utilising politics for positive ends turning into powerlessness and reliance upon Greenspan’s technological visions.
All of the stories eventually come together, as new concepts for computer-led and individual-freeing American prosperity are tested on East Asian countries such as Thailand. While the failure is dramatic, the size of the impact escalates when these policies are flipped over by China onto the United States and other western financial centres. It’s the best part of the episode, and made for a fantastic “ooh, er, crap” moment of realisation.
Curtis’ familiar obsession with the tragicomic lives of important figures did not disappoint. Had her philosophies not be so closely associated with the financial crash later in the episode, the portrayal of Rand’s romantic problems could have elicited real sympathy in the viewer. Her personal life reflected her own struggle to reconcile her philosophy with personal relationships to miserable consequence, despite her own outward appearance of firm belief. The confessions of her inner circle about the state of Rand’s life into the camera lens seemed almost cathartic for them, as they reminisced on their failings as a group.
The first episode took longer to get wrapped up in than the previous series did, but perhaps that’s a reflection of the fact the bigger picture being immediately available, the programme having already aired its full run. Viewed independently, the first episode only grabbed completely when it used what it had explored as an explanation for the 2008 financial crash. For what seemed like a slow start, it had a great pay-off in the end.
Regardless of whether the audience wants to nod along enthusiastically, disagree, or simply be taken along for the ride, Adam Curtis has once again made something worth watching, providing the thinking cap is firmly on. The next two parts will be interesting, as there’s plenty to still expand on. The biggest wink to the Facebook-enabled viewer was the discussion of how online interactions can be self-commoditization for the benefit of others, and it probably won’t be the last we’ll hear of that. The first episode is available on iPlayer now, while the next two episodes air the following two Mondays at 9pm on BBC Two. Meanwhile, I’ll be wondering whether to post a link to this on Facebook or bury my laptop in the woods.