Military operations, media promotions, corporate finagling, presidential politics. It all sounds like last night’s news. It also makes up the subject matter of The Manchurian Candidate, then and now.
Then, in 1962, the film laid out John Frankenheimer and George Axelrod’s brilliant breakdown of Cold War paranoia. And the commies were not nearly so invidious or so cruel as the U.S. politicians determined to contain them, who would stop at nothing—including political maneuvering and assassination—to maintain control over their patch of planet. Now, Jonathan Demme’s movie reasserts that the fabled U.S. political landscape isn’t transparent or democratic, but instead, corrupted by the individuals who manage it. Now, however, the villains are not Communist, but corporate.
Like the original, the new film begins with a war, a seemingly defining national moment that turns out not to be what it seems. Specifically, it begins during the confusion of 1991’s Gulf War, as Army Sergeant Bennett Marco (Denzel Washington) inadvertently leads his men into an ambush in the Kuwaiti desert. With burning oil wells and night-visioned battling only partly visible, the film posits that the war that supposedly reclaimed the U.S.‘s ostensibly righteous reputation after Vietnam, might not have been an unqualified victory. In this fictionalization, the Gulf War becomes part of a covert corporate plot that also makes use of 9/11’s political fallout. As Demme tells the New York Times, “I am haunted by notions of things like the military-industrial complex. But it’s only in the last couple of years that this terrain is making its way into magazines and newspapers” (Sharon Waxman, “A Hollywood ‘Candidate’ for the Political Season,” 28 July 2004).
This “terrain” is visible throughout The Manchurian Candidate. Opening in theaters as the Democratic National Convention closes and the full-on effort to unseat the Bush Administration commences, the film hardly disguises its sense of what’s at stake in any mediated politics. Much like any current political operative, the bad guys here work the news cycles with skill and cunning. As the opening credits come under Wyclef’s rueful cover of John Fogerty’s “Fortunate Son,” the initial battleground ambush becomes a more broadly conceived trap.
It turns out that the only member of Marco’s company who might be deemed “fortunate” is Sergeant Raymond Shaw (Liev Schreiber). Specifically, his career success back in the States results from his wartime “heroism,” orchestrated by the bad guys and wholly accepted and promoted by an unquestioning U.S. media. Following three unremembered days in captivity, the survivors emerge, believing Raymond to be their savior and recommending he receive the Congressional Medal of Honor.
Cut to some 13 years later. Marco, now a major, remembers only slender fragments of those three days, yet he dutifully rehearses the story for sparsely attended assemblies, insisting repeatedly on Raymond’s valor and decency. Following one such appearance, he’s accosted by another survivor of their Desert Storm ordeal, Al Melvin (Jeffrey Wright), now utterly broken and terrified by his recurring nightmare, in which he sees Raymond murder another of the American captives: “I’m just a little stuck, Sir,” he mutters. Al’s notebooks, filled with monstrous images and mad chicken-scratchy jottings, aggravate Marco’s own doubts concerning what happened in Kuwait and its discomfiting relation to his mantra, that “Raymond Shaw is the kindest, bravest, warmest, most selfless man I’ve ever met in my life.”
So far, so like the first film, down to the echo of Axelrod’s original mantra about Raymond. The changes in Demme’s update begin with Marco’s relationship with Al. Two black men in a mostly white (though not all) unit, they appear here to share a certain trust and loyalty. Though plainly upsetting to Marco (who rushes away, retreating from Al’s view through glass doors), their meeting yet moves the major to follow up on his own misgivings. Again, the new film inserts a shift in Marco’s sense of self: where Frank Sinatra’s Marco felt well-served by his Army, enough to approach them with his concerns, Washington’s Marco has no such confidence, and so seeks to solve the puzzle on his own.
Though Marco is fulfilling his career obligations, he lives in fear and shadows, suspecting the Gulf War experience constituted an assault on his mind: “Somebody got into our heads,” he insists, when he finally arranges a meeting with Raymond, “with steel-toed boots and chainsaws.” The movie provides him with a convenient and enigmatic partner in conspiracy theorizing, a “rogue scientist” named Delp (Bruno Ganz). When Marco approaches him with his “proof” (a tiny implant that he extracts with a singular ferocity), Delp is eager to help (and has a temporary lab at the ready), confirming Marco’s suspicion that he and the “famed lost patrol” were brainwashed and reprogrammed in 1991. (The literal-minded mechanics of these implants are less ambiguous and considerably less satisfying than the garden club hallucinations of Frankenheimer’s film.)
The new Manchurian Candidate‘s explicitness and cynicism extend further in its repositioning of Raymond. A Senator now, Raymond is in a different place than in the first film, when he was a “newspaper man” (the press is in cahoots with the political system now, rather than adversarial, a point underlined by Al Franken’s ironic cameo as a journalist with no pretense of objectivity). Though Raymond moons after a lost love (Vera Farmiga), he appears to have very little resistance against his fate, and so it’s difficult to worry too much about him, except as he signifies Marco’s apprehension.
The film’s immediate crisis is triggered by Raymond’s run for Vice President, thanks to behind-the-scenes manipulations of his charismatic mother, Senator Eleanor Prentiss Shaw (Meryl Streep), of the “fabled Prentiss family.” Her entrance into the movie’s male-dominated political arguments is frankly dazzling, as she persuades dubious party workers to put her son’s name forward, rather than their already-decided, safer candidate. In particular, she sells Raymond, in a backroom manipulation, as a good-looking, energetic, and media-ready means to “Secure Tomorrow,” per post-9/11 anxieties. (Her speech rather encapsulates four days worth of conventioneering—pushing all the right buttons, making all the effective threats.)
Symbolizing such anxieties is the new movie’s central villain, a corporation called Manchurian Global. This shift constitutes necessary and mostly clever twisting of the earlier Chinese and Russian communist plot by screenwriters Daniel Pyne (The Sum of All Fears) and Dean Georgaris (Paycheck), in that power is invested in corporations rather than non-U.S. nations. The threat in this 2004 case is now so insidious and entrenched that even its exposure has little effect on political or financial structures. (Even so, Demme’s movie offers up a disappointing “happy ending,” relative to 1962’s dire last scene, which probably says as much about movie marketing strategies as it does about any shift in a cultural zeitgeist, resilient optimism or determined self-affirmation.)
With a stake in all aspects of national security, media production, war-making, and nation-building, Manchurian Global—represented vaguely by executive types as well as a wholly malevolent, white South African doctor [Simon McBurney]—is deadly serious about protecting its interests in the U.S. (and other) governing bodies. And so Marco is up against it, fighting a body that seems to have no borders, only more and more access.
Still, the film draws a line between the corporation and the government, sustaining a hope that the U.S. system might be salvaged by an honestly free election (whether this is possible is another question that the movie doesn’t answer directly). For Marco, this hope is incarnated by Rosie (a fiercely convincing Kimberly Elise), a grocery clerk who looks after him as he sweats through nightmares and pursues his quest to expose a truth—of some sort. Though their initial dialogue on the train from DC to New York preserves a bit of Janet Leigh’s exchange with Sinatra (the questions about her “fragile” name), it loses most of its delirious weirdness and intriguing abstraction.
And that might be said for most of The Manchurian Candidate. It trades in peculiarity and insinuation for assertion and argument. And if political parties aren’t identified, the players’ (and the film’s) affiliations are clear enough, from Eleanor’s fear-baiting rhetoric to her arch-enemy Senator Tom Jordan’s (Jon Voight) earnest, flawed liberal leaning. This loss of subtlety and strangeness speaks to a changed political and commercial context, a simplified mode of thought that is frankly more distressing than any movie-style paranoia.