Monday, August 27, 2007

reVIEW (22)

This one—a slightly altered version of a review previously published in 2004 entitled “The Politics of Paranoia”—is being resurrected because whatever the film may be saying is still pretty important.

It’s an election year in the United States. From left (Fahrenheit 9/11 and a host of others) and right (George W. Bush: Faith in the White House and a smaller host of others), documentaries are being released to help spark debate, and hopefully, influence votes. Along with these documentaries are a handful of feature films that tackle political themes or subject matter. There is John Sayles’ Silver City, with Chris Cooper; though quite possibly the highest profile of these batch of films is Jonathan Demme’s remake of the 1962 Frank Sinatra-starrer The Manchurian Candidate, which was, in turn, based on the novel of the same name by Richard Condon.

Updating the Cold War scenario of the original, Denzel Washington is Major Bennett Ezekiel Marco, a Desert Storm veteran who is beginning to doubt the veracity of his memory. Marco’s dreams are telling him that something is not quite right in his head, and the heads of the members of his former unit, among them, Congressman Raymond Prentiss Shaw (Liev Schreiber), poised to become the next Vice President, under the careful, guiding hand of his mother, Senator Eleanor Prentiss Shaw (Meryl Streep).
What Marco uncovers is an apparent conspiracy to position a brainwashed puppet President in the White House, dangling on the strings of Manchurian Global, a “private equity fund” which is described by one character as a “geopolitical extension of policy for every president since Nixon.” (Though I’m sure PoliSci grads out there know exactly what that means, as a mere plebeian, all I got from the context in which the line was delivered was that this was a Very Bad Thing.)

With a cast like this, one expects sterling performances, and none of the principal three disappoint. Washington’s Marco is normally a capable and confident soldier, but when faced with the possibility of being betrayed by his own brain, he is understandably on edge. Schreiber is astoundingly convincing as a charismatic political candidate, secretly chafing at the control his mother has over him. And Streep, of course, is Streep. Her Eleanor Prentiss Shaw is the proverbial power behind the throne, the matriarchal manipulator who will see her son in the White House, no matter the cost.
Sadly, Dean Stockwell and Miguel Ferrer are among the underutilized members of the cast, particularly Stockwell, who does little more than stand around and frown.

Now, as a thriller, The Manchurian Candidate is not as taut as I had hoped it would be (Demme, after all, gave us The Silence of the Lambs). In addition, the plot, in certain instances, gets either a tad predictable, or takes an all-too-convenient turn.
The film does, however, get plus points for technique.
With a script structured in fragments that usually end in a fade to black, Demme successfully emulates the nature of memory: we don’t recall every single detail. We remember things in blocks, in chunks of sight and sound. Also, to heighten the atmosphere of paranoia that runs throughout the film, Demme occasionally uses close-up shots of characters speaking directly to the camera—to us, the off-camera character they are addressing.

Now, if it isn’t quite clear, let me spell out the fact that though The Manchurian Candidate is a thriller, it is not of the characters-chasing-one-another-down-crowded-city-streets-to-a-pounding-techno-beat school, nor does it have any significant plot twists to play mindgames with the audience. Much of the tension and conflict is internal and relational: Marco struggling to maintain his sanity despite the X-Files-like conspiracy he suspects is taking place; Raymond Shaw, caught between his own best intentions, his mother’s ambition, and Marco’s increasingly agitated claims.

Regardless of the film’s pros and cons though, I do think it’s a rather sad statement that in the original 1962 film, the motivation for putting a sleeper in the White House was ideology. Today, just over four decades later, it’s economics. It’s to ensure that the man in the Oval Office will keep the perpetual war running so the people making the money off the conflict continue to do so.
At least when the Chairman played the paranoia game in `62, it was because of a belief in something far larger than a piece of paper with an arbitrarily-assigned value attached to it. Ah, well, the times do change things, don’t they?

So, if you’re going to watch The Manchurian Candidate, see it for three things: the performances, the storytelling technique, and—mind you, this could be paranoia talking—the metastory I suspect is being told: of the horrifying ease with which people can be bought and owned by third parties. That the Manchurian Globals of the real world don’t need anything as sci-fi as subdermal implants nor as James Bond as post-hypnotic commands. All they need is the right amount of money to throw at greedy, weak-willed people, and they’ll have their puppets in place, dancing to the tunes they play, ready and eager to roll over when the order is given.

Parting shot: For fans of Robyn Hitchcock and the Egyptians, Hitchcock pops up here in a minor role, which isn’t the first time Demme has cast a musician in his films: Chris Isaak played a SWAT team leader in The Silence of the Lambs.

(The Manchurian Candidate OS and DVD cover art courtesy of

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