The Manchurian Candidate (2004)

Where are all the men anymore?
— Eleanor Prentiss Shaw (Meryl Streep), The Manchurian Candidate

One of the most dangerous tightropes that we were walking was the depiction of Northern African, Arabic people in the movie. Because I think there was certainly an impulse at this moment in time, we’re all so filled with hatred and fear of Al Qaeda, that the idea of making them the enemy and in so doing, risking the very real danger of creating stereotypes that would reinforce negative feelings against all Arab people, and all Islamic people.
— Jonathan Demme, commentary, The Manchurian Candidate

“This is the thematic heart of the movie, isn’t it? This notion that no matter how hard they try to control you, there is that little part of the human spirit…” begins The Manchurian Candidate director Jonathan Demme. “…That cannot be defeated,” finishes co-writer Dan Pyne. They’re watching a turning point in the film (here for the DVD), when Ben Marco (Denzel Washington) and vice presidential candidate Raymond Shaw (Liev Schreiber) confront one another in a colorfully decorated elementary school classroom, in the building serving as a polling place for the election that will determine the future of the U.S. The characters face one another in alternating, “creepy subjective” close-ups, tears in their eyes, both knowing the damage that has been done to them and that they have done. The scene seems like full-on tragedy, but will be turned perverse by yet another twist in the film’s rendition of ugly political scheming.

Throughout their commentary, Demme and Pyne reference the 1962 original version of The Manchurian Candidate, directed by John Frankenheimer, scripted by George Axelrod, and based on Richard Condon’s thriller. That movie broke down Cold War paranoia, positing that the commies were not nearly so invidious or 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. 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 and highly mediated.

Like the original (which opened on a dark night in Korea), 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 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 the Vietnam war, 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. Demme’s film is upfront about its politics and its indictment of media. Much like any current political operative, its bad guys 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 Raymond. 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 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: “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. Still, as Pyne observes, “We didn’t want to remake that movie, we wanted a new movie.” The changes 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 has no such confidence, and so seeks to solve the puzzle on his own.

As the camera pans his shabby apartment, cluttered with newspapers and food containers he’s too depressed to clean up, the tv drones in the background, Al-Franken-as-journalist describing current affairs:

Polls indicate that more and more voters are concerned with personal family safety and economic security, fearing more and more jobs going overseas or being taken by illegal immigrants. They’re concerned with the quality of air and water, the degradation caused by the rollback in environmental regulations, by religious and racial polarization, with the drumbeat of body bags coming from all over the globe.

Marco’s just an extreme embodiment of everyone’s fears. “Ben Marco breaks my heart,” says Demme in the commentary. “He’s an extraordinarily decent, decent man. And he’s an important American in the sense that he’s what we’re supposed to be all about, integrity, decency, generosity, a quest for the truth.”

Or, as Pyne has it, “The intention to make the whole movie feel like Marco’s dream.” Demme gushes, “I love that. Any single scene, you could cut to Marco waking up.” He never has a cathartic breakthrough, he only accumulates evidence that he’s crazy, even as he knows he’s not. Demme asserts, “I think all of us who made the movie were fascinated by the way U.S. government intersects with such an extraordinary intimacy with multinational corporations that profit from war and chaos.” Adds Pyne, “I think the movie is a bit of a mirror of who we are and what we’ve become.”

The DVD includes extras that underline this mirror: along with conversations with “The Cast of The Manchurian Candidate,” it features a making of documentary called “The Enemy Within: Inside The Manchurian Candidate,” deleted and extended scenes, outtakes, and a section called “Political pundits,” which breaks down into conversations between Beau Sia and Roy Blount Jr., Fab Five Freddy and Anna Deveare Smith, Reno and Sidney Lumet, bits and pieces of which found their way into what Demme calls the film’s “received media sound matrix.”

Marco sets himself against this matrix, suspecting the Gulf War experience constituted an assault on his mind: “Somebody got into our heads,” he says, “with big steel-toe boots, cable cutters and a chainsaw and they went to town. Neurons got exposed and circuits got rewired. Our brain cells got obliterated, Raymond.” 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 Franken’s journalist, who doesn’t even pretend to be “fair and balanced”). Though Raymond moons after a lost love (Vera Farmiga), he appears to have very little resistance against his fate or his mother (“Basically,” Schreiber says, “I play a mama’s boy”), 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. Streep insists, in an interview for one of the DVD’s extras, “I don’t really see her as a villain. People are driven by what they think is right. Sometimes you have to bend the rules to get to that place where the better world is. There are things that happen in the way. As Donald Rumsfeld says, ‘There’s mess.'”

Eleanor sells her fellow politicos on Raymond, in a backroom manipulation, as a good-looking, energetic, and media-ready means to “Secure Tomorrow,” per post-9/11 anxieties. Her speech here encapsulates four days worth of conventioneering — pushing all the right buttons, making all the effective threats: “We can give them heat, energy,” she proposes, “We can give them a war hero with heart, forged by enemy fire in the desert in the dark!”

The force enabling her manipulations 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 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.