A Vote for The Manchurian Candidate

For movie buffs, John Frankenheimer’s The Manchurian Candidate (1962) occupies a special place as the ultimate political conspiracy film.  Its reputation is based as much on the assassination plot that drives the film’s narrative as on the circumstances of its initial release: the year before president John F. Kennedy’s murder.  Its reputation was enhanced during the period that it was unavailable for distribution. Apparently the idea of foreign agents gaining the presidency through assassination touched a nerve after JFK’s death, and the film “disappeared” for 25 years.  Then The Manchurian Candidate reappeared as an art house classic in 1988 in the midst of a highly partisan presidential election.  The Iran-Contra scandal had piqued American appetites for conspiracy during the twilight of the Reagan era, and The Manchurian Candidate with its mind-controlled protagonist seemed more plausible after eight years of an actor/president and a former CIA-chief as VP. 

All of this serves as important context for The Manchurian Candidate, which opened in theaters July 30th.  This remake by Jonathan Demme is as much an effort to warn audiences about problems with our political process as it is an attempt to entertain them with a well-acted summer thriller.  Like the original, Demme’s remake of The Manchurian Candidate draws its tension from the relationship between Maj. Ben Marco (Denzel Washington) and Sgt. Raymond Shaw (Liev Schreiber).  The war in which Marco and Shaw fought has been changed to Desert Storm rather than the Korean War, but the plot is essentially the same.  Their squadron is kidnapped from the battlefield and brainwashed—this time using microchip implants rather than hypnosis—so that they will obey their captors once they return to the US.  The most significant change from the original is that the captors are no longer communists, but corporate criminals.  The “Manchurian” of the title refers to “Manchurian Global,” a huge multinational corporation rather than Red China, and Shaw, who receives the Medal of Honor and launches a political career after members of his squadron testify to his heroism, will be the first “privately owned and operated vice president of the United States.” 

The switch from a corporate rather than communist threat is a major one, and not since Silence of the Lambs (1991) has Demme created such a creepy atmosphere to express a threatening presence.  Every frame suggests some level of corporate penetration into our daily lives.  Often it is figurative, like a giant advertisement for Cup O’ Noodles, but it is also literal, as when a doctor working for Manchurian Global penetrates Raymond’s skull with a drill to implant a new microchip.  Throughout the film we hear broadcasts reporting on terrorist activities, and updates on the presidential race that are eerily reminiscent of our current information environment.  Perhaps to lighten the oppressive tone of the constant news chatter, Al Franken appears as a newscaster, but his character never evolves to anything more than a confusing contributor to the incessant media prattle that perfectly characterizes the dread of contemporary American life.  The threat of corporate omnipotence, where it is never really clear if the enemy is in fact the enemy at all, makes the threat of communism seem quaint by comparison.

Demme makes the fewest changes where the main characters are concerned.  Audiences are treated to strong performances from the three leads.  Washington, playing the role initially brought to the screen by Frank Sinatra, is first rate as the paranoid but vigilant Ben Marco.  His conviction that something is wrong—though he knows not what—coincides closely with the fears and frustrations of many American voters.  Liev Schrieber is perfectly cast as the charismatic, but strangely distant, Raymond Shaw.  In spite of his cold exterior he is sympathetic as a politician who wants to serve his constituents, but is literally in the power of others.  Meryl Streep’s flamboyant portrayal of Senator Eleanor Shaw, Raymond’s domineering mother, is different than the one Angela Lansbury received an Oscar nomination for in the original, but Streep makes it every bit as compelling by tinting her view of Raymond, the son who will fulfill her own political ambitions, with traces of eroticism.

In spite of The Manchurian Candidate’s politically charged content, Demme cleverly resists the temptation to allow for any simple allegorical interpretation of the film.  Political parties are never mentioned, and although Manchurian Global with its “no bid” war contracts and military industrial connections can easily be read as a stand in for Halliburton, Bechtel, or some other war profiteer, the actual characters are far more ambiguous and cannot be linked to anyone specific. Raymond Shaw, with his war medals, articulate charm, and dashing good looks resembles John Kerry or John Edwards as much, or more, than George Bush or Dick Cheney.  Eleanor Shaw, the powerful senator from New York, may remind some of Hillary Clinton, but The Manchurian Candidate is not a partisan attack on liberals or conservatives.  Instead, its critique is directed squarely at the voters.  The film asks the electorate to wake up and realize the degree to which our leaders from both parties are under the control of corporations and special interests.  What it doesn’t tell us is whether life is even possible at this point without corporations telling us what to buy, what to think, and of course, how to vote.



This article was originally published in my CineMatters column for The Baltimore View, August 2004. Joseph Christopher Schaub