Shortly after two planes were flown into the Twin Towers, the expression Islamic fundamentalists became a part of the common parlance everywhere from Peoria to Pomona Beach. It wasn't long before another group of formerly sidelined extremists entered the larger cultural consciousness: the neocons who had been theorizing about a new age of American colonialism. Adam Curtis's three-part documentary traces each radical sect back to a single respective figurehead—Egyptian nationalist Sayyid Qutb for the visitors, University of Chicago professor Leo Strauss for the home team—and charts their parallel paths from political pariahs to post--September 11 power brokers. Besides noting each faction's exploitation of faith and fear, the film also offers an interesting central thesis: Both groups parasitically need each other to act as bogeymen in order to flourish.
Originally produced for the BBC, The Power of Nightmares uses its lengthy running time to mount a flip-book history lesson aimed at The Nation's subscriber base. Curtis's investigative reporting falls somewhere between Michael Moore's muckraking and found-footage maestro Craig Baldwin's rants, connecting all sorts of dots while flash-cutting to kitschy film snippets and dropping in ironic music cues to make the medicine go down. Behind-the-scenes revelations abound (like the origin of Al Qaeda's name), though the pop-whiz manner of presentation courts overkill at every turn. There's a lot of food for thought here, though the filmmaker's insistence on cramming it down your throat occasionally leaves you a little gassy. (Opens Fri; Cinema Village.)