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Non-Review Review: The Manchurian Candidate (2004)

I actually quite enjoyed Jonathan Demme’s 2004 remake of The Manchurian Candidate, even if it seems to lack the same clear political bite of the novel and original film version of the tale. In many respects, Demme’s film adaptation is a triumph of atmosphere, featuring a superb cast and a perpetual sense of uncertainty. While its politics seem a bit less provocative and engaging than the source material, Demme is still a superb film maker. There’s a wonderful sense of unease and discomfort that seems to pervade every frame of the film, with the politics of the movie perhaps the only facet that is never unclear.

The naked truth…

There’s a very ethereal mood to The Manchurian Candidate, as if we are somehow witnessing the lucid dreams of the protagonist, Major Bennett Marco. Naturally, the dream sequences and flashbacks seem almost hyper-real, but there are several moments where the conscious world seems a little too surreal or absurd. A secret experimentation chamber is hidden behind the wall of a hotel room housing the Vice Presidential candidate, or a school just happens to be hosting a play featuring Abraham Lincoln, or a shady meeting on a sunny afternoon featuring two men in trenchcoats and fedoras. Such scenes are undoubtedly as “real” as anything in the film, but they seem quite strange and jarring. There’s a sense that this isn’t quite real.

About half-way through the film, Marco’s is discussing his strange dreams with a friend, a scientist with an interest in the functions of the brain. His friend asks him, “What if all this is your dream, and you’re really back in Kuwait?” There is a feeling, throughout the film, that the camera could quick cut to Marco lying in the desert during the Gulf War, and it would all make sense. This is, in a way, the greatest strength of Demme’s remake.

A party to all this…

The director creates a sense that reality itself is inherently malleable and capable of being shaped and distorted according to perception. Discussing his radical (and unethical) medical experiments on the human brain, Dr. Atticus Noyle boasts that, “We can free people from the burden of an emotionally compromised past.” After all, if you don’t remember an event – or remember it differently – does it matter that it happened at all? It’s clever, compelling and fascinating.

There’s a sense that Demme is consciously trying to foster this atmosphere, rather than relying on the movie’s plotting or scripting. After all, due to the wonders of pop cultural osmosis, we all know the story of The Manchurian Candidate– even if we’ve never seen the original film or read the book that it was based on. So Demme covers the ground quickly. It seems that he lays out the movie’s central mystery within the first fifteen minutes. There’s no ambiguity or alternative or uncertainty about what happened in Kuwait.

A Vice President…

After all, we know that The Manchurian Candidate is a story about brainwashing, so Demme acknowledges this up front. Barring a twist in the last fifteen minutes, the bulk of the film is fairly up-front with its audience about what is going on. The trick lies in Demme’s execution and, as one would expect from the director of The Silence of the Lambs, the execution is top notch. It looks and feels superb.

That said, the movie’s politics feel somehow “safer” than they probably should be. The movie’s title originally referred to the source of the threat – a Chinese attempt to usurp control of the American government. Here, the enemy is not an international force. Instead, it’s a generic American consortium with all manner of political leverage and dark ties to government. Their name is – interestingly enough for an American corporation – “Manchurian Global”, so the title still fits.

Shouldering responsibility…

Their sinister board of directors, played by veteran character actors like Dean Stockwell and Jude Ciccolella, hank around in broad daylight dressed in trenchcoats and fedoras. Explaining the company to Marco, his friend tells the veteran, “Imagine not just  a corporation, Marco, but a goddamn geopolitical extension of policy for every president since Nixon.” They’re pretty heavily implied to have their fingers in a lot of political pies. Eleanor Prentiss Shaw illustrates their reach, proclaiming, “They contribute to half the Senate. Both sides of the aisle.”

It seems the company’s reach goes all the way to the top, the embodiment of the “military-industrial complex” that Eisenhower cited. We’re told, “Among the shareholders  in Manchurian Global, were they to ever publish a list, which they won’t, you would find former Presidents,  deposed kings, trust fund terrorists,  fallen Communist dictators, Ayatollahs, African warlords and retired Prime Ministers.”

Behind every great man…

This does, of course, raise the question of why Manchurian Global went to the bother of brainwashing a viable candidate when it seems like they could just buy one, or “make” one without resorting to such unproven methods. After all, their reach includes former Presidents, so it feels strange that they have to resort to brainwashing to position their pawn correctly. If one were to believe the concerns the movie suggests about the ties between private enterprise and public government, the hole scheme seems to be generically evil and unnecessary – evil for the sake of being evil.

There is a sense that the movie lacks the courage of its political convictions just a bit. The party that is running Shaw for Vice-President is never named. However, it is heavily hinted to be the Democratic Party. When Eleanor threatens to undermine the party ticket, one advisor comments, “And deny us the White House another four years?” Given that the film was produced to the end of George Bush’s first term, it leans pretty heavily towards the Democrats.

Trouble in Washington…

Eleanor herself even identifies the party’s strengths and weaknesses in terms that will be familiar to most viewers. Discussing the alternative to her son as Vice Presidential candidate, she muses, “Consider, that our intrepid Arthur can hold on to his own home ground, and the Northeast, and even California, we are still dead across the South. And the Southwest, where they win by landslides.” She adds, “Now, you’re counting on  Tom Jordan to help you get the black vote, women and college kids.” Those are all key Democratic constituencies.

Demme, however, refuses to explicitly identify the party, which robs a lot of the political commentary of a certain poignancy. For example, couching the candidates in imagery traditionally associated with Republican candidates (hawks and use of the colour red) could have been read as intriguing political commentary on the two-party system, but instead reads as a half-hearted attempt to avoid being overtly political. The original film adaptation had enough courage of its convictions to identify the party as Republican.

Answering the Call…

That said, the film does do an excellent job capturing the political climate of the time (and, to a certain extent, the present). Demme’s alternate version of America seems to run entirely on fear. While few of the characters directly address it, and only in explicitly manipulative terms, we constantly hear talk radio and television snippets talking about a climate of terror defining the American public. Early on we’re told of “the War on Terror continuing into another year, with no end sight” while politicians offer soundbytes about the threat of “allowing our fears to undermine our democratic ideals.”

There are even a few thinly-veiled and vaguely sinister suggestions that Raymond Shaw isn’t even the most overt threat to democracy from a multi-national corporation. In the wake of the controversy over ballot papers in Florida, a news sound clip about “the controversial touch-screen units that will be used in the forthcoming election”hints at possible systemic corruption of the democratic process arguably even more overt than positioning a sleeper agent into the position of ultimate authority. It seems that Demme’s political themes and ideas work better in the background than they do when pushed to the fore, where they seem to be obscured to avoid offence.

El on Earth…

Demme has drawn together a fantastic cast for the film. It’s always interesting how many faces one can recognise on rewatching a film like this. Generally, a larger number of recognisable faces in it (that weren’t recognisable at the time) suggests a higher quality. Here, we have Vera Farmiga, Jeffrey Wright, Bruno Ganz, Anthony Mackie and Simon McBurney all playing small and yet crucial roles – none of whom I would have recognised at the time, but who I have grown quite fond of in the years since. Demme also combines a stellar above-the-title cast (Meryl Streep, Denzel Washington, Liev Schreiber and Jon Voight) with a large number of veteran supporting players (Miguel Ferrer, Ted Levine, Charles Napier, Dean Stockwell and Jude Ciccolella).

In particular, Streep is delightful as Eleanor Prentiss Shaw, a charter who, apparently, was not modelled in anyway on Hillary Rodham Clinton. Certainly not down to the double-barrelled surname or hairstyle. Streep gives the role a wonder sense of theatricality, playing perfect domineering and possessive mother, one who seems almost jealous of anyone who might steal her son’s affections. “I was twenty years old before I had a friend,” Raymond confesses at one point. “Worse, a girlfriend.” When his mother suggests that a former lover “toyed” with his affections, Raymond insists, “You destroyed any possibility of us ever–“

Liev it to him…

Demme maintains the creepy subtext that made the dynamic between Shaw and his mother so compelling and yet disgusting in the original adaptation. Though Demme, like the original big screen adaptation, only implies what the original book explicitly stated, it’s still damned uncomfortable to watch. Streep and Schreiber do a wonderful job creating an unsettlingly dysfunctional mother-son dynamic. While Washington makes for a superb lead, Streep and Schreiber both steel the show.

The Manchurian Candidate is a worthy successor to a classic, even if its grand political ideas feel a tad generic. Demme instead crafts an atmospheric exploration of American political culture that is better in the finer details than the big picture. With a cast this strong, that’s enough to hold it together, even if it feels like the movie could have been a bit bolder in its political commentary.

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