Friday, August 18, 2006

[classic film] manchurian candidate still relevant today

The Manchurian Candidate had the effect on me that Silence of the Lambs might have had on cannibals around the globe.

Leaving aside the ubiquitous director’s cut, this would have to be one of the few films where the revised version stands up almost as well as the acclaimed original. Almost.

John Frankenheimer’s dark, brooding 1962 tale of American psycho-history is, if you can believe Rotten Tomatoes’ 100% rating, a genuine classic. It certainly took the box office by storm before being suddenly withdrawn from circulation and then re-released a quarter of a century later.

It is as much oracle as movie - steeped in what Norman Mailer called "that concentration of ecstasy and violence which is the dream life of the nation".

Jonathan Demme’s 2004 take of the same story has a different thrust entirely, despite the utilization of the same basic plot and characters.

Where Frankenheimer concentrated on the infiltration of the American body politik by Korean nasties, the implied theme running through Demme’s screenplay is one of the hidden organization lying behind the major current catastrophes around the globe. It just happens to use the American presidency and vice-presidency as examples.

I feel that the criticism that Demme's remake is an intervention, a desecration, a revision and an all-purpose metaphor is unfair. Yes, the Sinatra original is a classic, no two ways about it. But the 2004 version certainly grows and repeated viewings reveal much, much more than the sum of the parts.

The Manchurian Candidate [1962] probably wouldn't have been made at all, if it weren't for its star, Frank Sinatra. Studios were reluctant to touch the politically sensitive 1959 novel by Richard Condon on which the film is based.

In essence, Condon suggested the Cold War was a Soviet-American co-production. US electoral politics were represented as the province of communist dupes and zombie secret agents, while the novel's demagogic Joseph McCarthy figure himself turned out to be a Soviet creation. One brainwashed the other; left- and right-wing paranoia merged.

The scenario was nothing less than a satiric version of the John Birch Society's Black Book, which held President Dwight Eisenhower to be a dedicated servant of the international communist conspiracy.

Sinatra was known to be a presidential pal and when he asked the President what he thought about the idea of his company making this movie, Kennedy thought long and hard, then telephoned Sinatra and told him to "go for it".

When the Democratic honchos who then ran United Artists deemed the film too controversial to touch, Kennedy proved instrumental in getting the movie made. Although JFK previewed it at the White House in late August 1962, history does not record his response. Perhaps he was distracted - that day a U2 spy plane had reported eight missile installations in Cuba that were only weeks away from being operational.

Two months later, The Manchurian Candidate had its premiere as Soviet ships steamed towards the US quarantine line surrounding Cuba, and under-secretary of state George Ball warned UN ambassador Adlai Stevenson that there could be a "shooting war" by the following afternoon.

Thus the film opened at the climax of the Cold War, to unanimous raves and in fact, having supplanted Darryl Zanuck's D-Day epic The Longest Day, The Manchurian Candidate reigned as national box-office champ just in time for Kennedy's mid-term elections.

It fulfilled its prophetic mission 13 months later when Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas. It is, therefore, the quintessential Kennedy-era thriller. It clearly influenced American history by forever colouring speculation about Lee Harvey Oswald and has become so linked with the Kennedy assassination that a legendary aura has grown up around it.

Indeed, there's a sense in which the movie is the Kennedy era - the epitome of glamour and anxiety, an anthology of Cold War anxieties ranging from TV image-building to communist infiltration of the government.

Truman Capote weighed into the debate in 1968 when he proposed that RFK assassin Sirhan Sirhan was a programmed "Manchurian candidate" and the term "Manchurian Candidate" has now entered everyday speech, meaning:

A brainwashed agent who has been hypnotized or torture-conditioned to act politically when his controllers pull the psychological trigger, even to the point of carrying out some morally repugnant atrocity, calmly and without the least shadow of remorse or feeling of guilt.

Six months after the Wallace shooting in 1972, and a decade after The Manchurian Candidate's initial release, Sinatra reasserted his rights, for financial reasons, in a contractual dispute with UA and the movie disappeared from cinemas for over a quarter of a century and thus from the popular consciousness. It remained withdrawn, not appearing again until its re-release in 1988.

The director, John Frankenheimer (1930-2002), was a movie-star-handsome, tall, rangy man who told hilarious stories about his adventures as a boy-wonder in the days of live network television. He used his TV experience to give The Manchurian Candidate a quick-moving, hard-edged urgency. Filming in black and white, incorporating inside details about political campaigns and journalism, he sweeps the story along with such utter conviction that its implausibility is concealed.

The viewer is asked to suspend disbelief and accept that a group of soldiers could be brainwashed in the space of three days and that the choice of U.S. president would be of paramount importance to the Russians and Chinese, who surely must have felt that such a choice could be likened to that of Tweedledum and Tweedledee. The notion of the Russian and Chinese cooperating in this venture also takes some getting used to.

And yet, for all that, it is a politically groundbreaking, edgy and well-acted film, especially notable for the portrayal, by Angela Lansbury, of a manipulative, evil and power-hungry Washington matriarch, as well as for the emotional portrayal by Sinatra.

This is, arguably and certainly in his own opinion, Sinatra’s finest performance as an actor. On the other hand, Lansbury's Mrs. Iselin, nominated for an Academy Award, is one of the great villains of movie history - fierce, focused and contemptuous of a husband she treats like a puppet.

Frankenheimer uses a heightened visual style to underline the byzantine complexity of his story. There are tilt shots, odd angles, and the use of deep focus for his favourite composition, in which a face is seen in close-up in the foreground, while the action takes place behind it in the middle distance.

The Manchurian Candidate is inventive and frisky, taking enormous chances with the audience in not playing like a "classic" but rather as an "alive and smart" vignette. The film's point of view cuts back and forth between the different versions of reality, moving freely between realism and surrealism.

"It may be," Pauline Kael wrote at the time, "the most sophisticated satire ever made in Hollywood."

Possibly so, because it satirizes no particular target - left, right, foreign or domestic – but strikes at the very notion that politics can be taken at face value.

Seen today, some forty years or so following its initial controversy, the film feels astonishingly contemporary. It trusts its viewers to follow its twisting, surrealistic plot and presents an uncompromisingly cynical and unexpectedly modern perception of politics.

In its established context, politics is simply a plague, as bystanders and otherwise innocent individuals are robbed of their most basic freedoms in the name of political expediency or, dare it be said, of a highly placed "hidden agenda". And of course, as always in 1962, the dark clouds of Communism were impetuously threatening.

The Manchurian Candidate is impeccably designed. To say that the film involves twists does not accurately measure the intricacy of its plot; it is a thick brush of narrative directions. To mind, no political thriller gathers greater momentum and yet steers towards more impossible turns, arriving at a truly astonishing finale.

The film is rich with subtext: the plot moves forward through television and newspaper headlines, political icons and emblems. Around its periphery, images of Abraham Lincoln recur – there is a bust, a painting, and even Senator Iselin’s costume at a party; each image foreshadowing the desired assassination of a political figure by a trained assassin.

“Raymond Shaw is the kindest, bravest, warmest, most wonderful human being I’ve ever met in my life.”

This line, notably repeated in The Manchurian Candidate, becomes more contradictory with each utterance it receives.

At first it seems befitting, as it describes a man receiving a medal for his exemplary courage in the Korean War. Later, however, we learn that Staff Sergeant Raymond Shaw [Laurence Harvey] is a helpless pawn and his cited traits therefore become decreasingly apt.

The film opens during the Korean War in 1952. A group of American soldiers embark for a midnight horizon. They are captured shortly thereafter by Communists and are brought behind the Manchurian border. Platoon officers Captain Bennett Marco [Sinatra] and the detestable Sergeant Raymond Shaw, along with the traitorous interpreter Chunjin, are the focus at this point of the film.

The officers heroically "escape" their captors and inflict great damage on the enemy in so doing. Shaw, stepson to Senator John Iselin, who is campaigning for Vice President, arrives home to a hero's welcome.

In an important aside to the plot, he is greeted by his domineering, bitterly acerbic, widowed mother, Mrs. Iselin and his loudmouth, idiotic, bumbling stepfather, Senator Iselin, a thinly veiled imitation of the real life, politically ambitious, "red-baiting" Senator McCarthy of the early 50s.

Shaw despises both of them and takes a newspaper job far away in NYC, under a respected political columnist whom his parent's hate, Holborn Gaines. Meanwhile, Shaw is scheduled to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor for conspicuous bravery.

At the same time, two of the men from his platoon, Ben Marco and Al Melvin, are independently having the same recurring nightmare. Their dream is told in a fantasy sequence: Shaw is flanked by his platoon, while attending a meeting of a gardening club in a New Jersey hotel and they are sitting in front of a group of women, during a “Fun With Hydrangeas” lecture.

In an uninterrupted pan, the camera tracks 360 degrees, from the soldiers to the listening women and back around to the men but now the soldiers are surrounded by Korean generals, with posters of Communist leaders on the wall and there, in the center, is a military scientist, lecturing the generals and other party officials at the so-called "Pavlov Institute" about the progress of the Soviet and Chinese brainwashing program.

The soldiers have seen only what they have been taught to see and it is the generals and party officials who inhabit reality.

To show how strong the programming is, the scientist orders Staff Sgt. Shaw to strangle one of his men. Shaw does so and the others in his platoon yawn with nonchalant disregard – they are not conditioned to perceive the violence before them.

Shaw is then told to shoot another and he does so. The process is a success and the generals and party officials are impressed.

Marco and Melvin, after this dream, immediately attempt to contact Shaw. Marco boards a train towards Washington; Melvin writes a letter to Shaw, who, in the middle of reading it, answers a ringing telephone:

“Raymond, why don’t you pass the time by playing a little solitaire?” a quiet voice suggests. He does so.

Upon arriving at the Queen of Diamonds, Raymond is hypnotized and awaits his orders. He is the perfect killer: willing to act at a moment’s notice, devoid of any guilt and incapable of remembering his crimes.

After two years, Shaw is now ready to be used as an assassin. He kills the columnist Gaines as a test, following orders he receives via the solitaire Queen of Diamonds. He will later be asked to kill the wife he loves and also her father, Senator Thomas Jordan, a political rival of Iselin.

Meanwhile, Marco has been promoted to Major in an intelligence unit but is having trouble sleeping because of nightmares which bring back memories of his brainwashing.

Placed on sick leave, he meets a young lady, Rosie and falls in love with her. She helps him regain his mental health and he remains in NYC, where he meets with Shaw, trying to piece together what the shocking dream means.

Marco leads an Army investigation to determine whether Raymond may have been programmed as an assassin - but fails to bring him in for questioning because he feels Raymond's romance with future wife Jocelyn, daughter of a liberal senator, may cure him.

After finally breaking the brainwashing code, Marco hopes he can get to Shaw in time to save him from carrying out his next act. It is now Marco's magic against the evil Commie programming.

The climax plays out inside Madison Square Garden. Mrs. Iselin, it turns out, is a Communist controller. She has duped her husband into thinking that he is on a crusade against communism, when in fact he is actually just her puppet.

She knows that her handlers will be sending an assassin to the Party Convention to kill presidential nominee Benjamin Arthur and it is her job to trigger this agent, whom she doesn’t know, to shoot the presidential candidate during his acceptance speech.

Sen. Iselin, the vice presidential candidate, will catch the falling body and will then, according to Mrs. Iselin, deliver "the most rousing speech I've ever read. It's been worked on, here and in Russia, on and off, for over eight years."

However, the black joke is on Mrs. Iselin in the end, as she finally discovers that the assassin she has sent is her beloved son. She vows vengeance on the communists.

Raymond sneaks into the convention with a sniper rifle, but instead of shooting Arthur, he kills his mother and stepfather. Marco catches up with Raymond, but it’s too late; Raymond turns his rifle around and shoots himself in the head.

Considering its many aims, the film is a library of thematic successes. It is firstly Cold War paranoia; then it is a satire of political etiquette; it contains elements of romance, horror, and procedural crime thrillers.

The Manchurian Candidate is at once brutally intelligent and shocking. Long after the final gunshot segues into pounding thunder, the impression of the film’s climax only gradually fades, like a slow-healing wound.

Demme's remake does not have the same raw, frenetic provocation of the 1962 version. It’s a sombre film, with slick production values and a fabulous cast, including Liv Schreiber, a definitive performance by Meryl Streep which many see as the equal of Angela Lansbury’s original and a tour-de-force by Denzel Washington who may or may not have overtones of Colin Powell .

The move is a ‘sleeper’ in its own right and repeated viewings reveal just how good it is. The tale is not unreminiscent of Alan Pakula's post-Watergate Parallax View.

The integration of dreams, flashbacks and daylight reality, the Cold War nightmare – these are missing. Rather, it's the new world order, globalization and the nature of true evil.

Hannah Arendt, in 1963, referring to Eichmann, spoke of ‘the fearsome, word and thought-defying banality of evil’ and that is precisely what is present in this film. This is the same evil written of in the 2005 romantic thriller Insanity:

On a tray, like a dentist’s tray, beside each seat, were a series of instruments.

One of the seats was occupied by a young woman, attended by a doctor and what looked like a nurse; at least she wore a crisp starched uniform. Janine’s guide described the drug that had been administered to her intravenously, in order to heighten the pain and trauma - they couldn’t afford too high a charge as there could well be irreversible tissue damage.

The doctor was speaking in a low, gentle voice then nodded to the nurse, who turned the dial. The young woman went rigid and passed out, blood appeared and seeped down her hospital jacket, the doctor cursed and the nurse made a note of the failure on her clipboard.

If Janine was appalled, she didn’t show it – she looked on impassively and asked who the girl was, recognizing the name of the operative she’d been sent to spring. She was asked if she’d like to observe the process at closer quarters and graciously inclined her head. They left the booth and made their way down to the training room.

Janine asked, ‘What do –’ and felt the hypodermic in her arm.

She woke up an hour later, in a hospital jacket, her back and bottom unclothed and strapped to a chair.

The far door opened and a doctor entered, a nurse with a clipboard following him. He washed his hands and came across to her.

‘Hello, Janine,’ he announced, ‘I’m Doctor Brown.’

Sinatra's daughter Tina had long been interested in the Manchurian remake, but the project was only given the go-ahead in September 2001. It was co-produced by Democratic activist Scott Rudin for Paramount Pictures, whose head of production, Sherry Lansing, was a contributor to the Kerry campaign - as was Sumner Redstone, CEO of Paramount's corporate parent, Viacom.

The second Manchurian Candidate belonged to George W. Bush nearly as much as the original did to JFK. The movie was in production during the run-up to the Iraq War, with dialogue rewritten in the light of unfolding events.

The bogus military hero Shaw [Schreiber] and his commanding officer [Washington] have their brains washed during Operation Desert Storm; the title now refers to the mega-corporate Manchurian Global, part Halliburton, part Carlyle Group.

Coup d'etat has been reformulated as "regime change" and the focus is on "the first privately owned and operated vice-president of the United States".

In the light of the current situation in Iraq, of Abu Greibh and the like and of the constant destabilization of the area, maybe it’s just a matter of time before the third remake appears. Needed – one Washington matriarch, one vice-president who’s a slave to the Finance and a fine Colin Powell/Tommy Franks character to play the lead.