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Electoral collage
The Manchurian Candidate has no platform
Corporate takeover

The media targeted by Jonathan Demme’s remake of The Manchurian Candidate have already targeted the movie. Case in point: is Meryl Streep imitating Hillary Clinton in her portrayal of Senator Eleanor Prentiss Shaw, the ruthless matriarch played unforgettably by Angela Lansbury in John Frankenheimer’s 1962 original? Was the resemblance so close that the filmmakers felt compelled to reshoot and re-edit? So went a recent news item on the Internet Movie Data Base (it has since disappeared). Many journalists seized on it, myself included. Was it true?

"No, that’s something that came out of the newspapers," says Demme. "Which I was happy to see because it sounds kind of spicy, but no, there was nothing like that."

"I don’t see anything Hillary Clinton, except maybe bangs or something," Streep adds. "That hairstyle is shared with quite a few people, and everyone mentions Hillary because I think there’s a special venom reserved for certain people. The politics of this character couldn’t be further from her, but it’s Hillary people go after. It’s really interesting. You should go and search down that story. Because I did yesterday. I was in an interview with Katie Couric, and she mentioned it. It’s easy to find — you can go on Google, you can find who this is that did this. You would not want to be associated with this person — a crazy person who has a Web site in Los Angeles. Every reporter has mentioned it to me because nobody searches down who it is — go there! I think his Web site’s called ‘Death to Liberals.’ Now this is your source — now this is somebody who has an agenda to attack Hillary Clinton."

Oops. In fact, Streep insists, if she was imitating anyone in her performance, it was Bush aide Karen Hughes.

Be that as it may, this example of misinformation raises another point about the movie. If it’s so easy to manipulate the truth and opinion by means of the Internet and the traditional media, why bother implanting probes in someone’s brain? In the remake, as in the original, a squad of American soldiers (here fighting in the Gulf War, not Korea) is captured and "brainwashed" — not by the relatively gentle Pavlovian conditioning of the original but with drills and what look like vacuum-cleaner hoses. The culprits? Not the Manchurian communists of Red China but the corporate despots of "Manchurian Global."

"Have you ever come across this book called In Search of the Manchurian Candidate?" asks Demme. "It consists of files and records of CIA mind-alteration experiments on unsuspecting people throughout the late ’60s and ’70s. The CIA was trying — and you know, we still are, I’m sure — to control minds through sleep deprivation and drugs and LSD. They would go to mental institutions and experiment on people who were under treatment in these places.

"Well, the more we researched that kind of experimentation and what the new frontiers are in scientific efforts today to alter personality and shape the way people behave, either through implants, electronic impulses, or genomic restructuring at the pre-natal stage, we discovered that it’s all kind of . . . happening. Or they’re out there trying to make it happen, and a lot of it is government funded."

"There’s a lot of mind control and brainwashing, and it’s not science fiction," says Denzel Washington, whose Major Ben Marco is a patrol survivor who begins to catch on to the brainwashing plot. "It’s your television set. Times Square is mind control. I’m telling you. I drive down the block and I want a Nestle’s Crunch without even knowing why."

If the traditional methods work so well, why bother with surgery?

"Control," says Demme. "Absolute control. As the head of Manchurian Global says, ‘We had a plan, a safe and more profitable world through . . . incorruptible top-level management.’ This is a movie, and it’s a cautionary tale. We have fun with the notion that in their quest for total control and a total amassing of profits, these companies would go so far as to condition a human being to do exactly as told — and that would be an asset to have in the White House. We’ve got a lot to be paranoid today about. We hope that the movie won’t relieve any of the paranoia."

"A cautionary tale?" asks Washington. "I think so. Cautionary tale, entertainment . . . hopefully you’ll think about the Nestle sign the next time you walk by it. That’s what I loved about — and I haven’t seen his [Michael Moore’s] latest film yet — but I watched Bowling for Columbine one night and I’ve been preaching this — I felt this for years — it teaches you to be afraid, that idiot box, it teaches you to be afraid so it will paralyze you, so you don’t go anywhere, so you’ll stay there and keep watching it, unless you’ve got to run out and buy something that it tells you to."

— PK

Like many disappointing Jonathan Demme films, The Manchurian Candidate at times seems poised to rise to the level of genius. Such as when Demme cuts from the throbbing interior of a Bradley fighting vehicle in which soldiers are playing poker with hip-hop music on at full volume to a long shot of the sky above the Kuwaiti desert, black and orange from the burning oil wells of the Gulf War. Or when he pans the apartment walls of vet Al Melvin (Jeffrey Wright) 13 years later, making almost palpable the squalid palimpsest of newspaper clippings, brutal drawings, and scrawled, repeated phrases.

Mostly, though, the potential for genius here lies in the performance of Denzel Washington as Major Ben Marco, Melvin’s commanding officer and a basket case who might be on to a plot to take over the country or who might be nuts, he doesn’t know which, or even whether there’s any difference. When he tells his only confidant, Delp (the great Bruno Ganz, playing a hobbit), that his nightmares of his experiences in Kuwait in 1991 seem more realistic than his memories, he’s told, unhelpfully, that maybe he’s still in Kuwait and what’s happening now is the nightmare. Something about the way Washington crumples into his trenchcoat and squints behind his band-aided spectacles suggests that there might be something to that possibility. Then again, maybe it’s all just a movie, a remake no less, a pastiche of bits and pieces that are smart and dumb but mostly derivative. Demme showed gumption in updating John Frankenheimer’s masterpiece of perennial paranoia, but the comparisons will be invidious nonetheless.

As in the original, Marco commands a scouting patrol; in this case he’s doing reconnaissance in advance of Desert Storm. There’s an ambush, and in the official version of what happened, Sergeant Raymond Shaw (Liev Schreiber) saves all but two members of the unit, an act of heroism for which he wins the Congressional Medal of Honor. Much to the delight of his mother, Senator Eleanor Prentiss Shaw (Meryl Streep, combining Martha Stewart with Medea), who uses the award to propel him into politics. And now, in this fictitious present day or near future, he’s poised for the vice-presidency.

But Marco and Melvin have a dream, one that’s far less horrifying than the sight of Shaw’s beloved costumed as the Queen of Diamonds. (Frankenheimer created his nightmare with the perverse elegance of a single 360-degree pan.) The patrol members have been captured and their brains not so much washed as roto-rootered. Demme, the master of horror in The Silence of the Lambs, throws in Grand Guignol experiments and drilled skulls, but these aren’t nearly as scary as Frankenheimer’s dowager lecturing about hydrangeas in a hotel lobby.

Neither is the plot that gets uncovered particularly shocking given what we’ve been through from the Kennedy assassinations to September 11. And these days, there’s no Iron Curtain to project our dread on. Back then, Manchuria evoked the Evil Empire, but in this post–Cold War era, movies have been hard pressed to come up with adequate bad guys this side of al-Qaeda. What if the enemy is us? In other words, corporations like Halliburton, or Viacom, corporate parent of Paramount, which released The Manchurian Candidate. Let’s have a corporation named Manchurian Global try to take over the world! Maybe audiences won’t notice that corporations already have taken over the world, that capitalism has defeated communism, that we’re all either consumers or the consumed.

At its wittiest and most subversive, The Manchurian Candidate lampoons this post-Orwellian image of the world. At times, the barbs are obvious, as when Senator Shaw schmoozes with her Manchurian Global backers in a cloud of cigar smoke and cynicism. More telling is the background chatter of the media — overheard or just-glimpsed bulletins about the latest pre-emptive strike against Guinea or Guatemala and the need for "compassionate vigilance." Paul Verhoeven perfected this parodic technique in RoboCop and Starship Troopers, films that seem prophetic today. Demme’s Candidate is neither prophetic nor very parodic. It’s like the mutterings of a talented filmmaker half in a dream.

Issue Date: July 30 - August 5, 2004
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