Sacha Ismail reviews The Manchurian candidate
In the famous 1960s film of the same name, American soldiers in the Korean war are brainwashed by Chinese Stalinists to carry out assassinations as part of a power struggle with witch-hunting US McCarthyites. A sophisticated satire on the totalitarian symbiosis between the two Cold War camps? Well, as I haven’t actually seen it, I can’t say.
In the remake, Denzel Washington plays a grizzled Gulf War veteran whose memories of the night his platoon only just survived an Iraqi attack seem increasingly contradictory and unreal. When he is plagued by strange dreams of what might really have happened that night, he seeks answers from the young man who is supposed to have single-handedly saved the convoy, now a prominent congressman and Democratic candidate for Vice President.
In place of a straight updating, in which the soldiers might have been nobbled by Ba’thist secret agents, the writers have chosen to make their aspiring politician the tool of a sinister corporate conglomerate, Manchurian Global.
The anti-corporate sentiment, presumably intended to strike a chord with a cinema-going public that has lapped up Fahrenheit 911 and The Corporation, is the source of both the film’s strengths and its weaknesses.
On one level, it is welcome to see a Hollywood blockbuster that indicts corporate control of the political process, its destructive consequences for democracy and its devaluing consequences for human life. “This isn’t an election, this is a coup,” says Washington’s character at one point. “This is rich people using bad science to put a sleeper in the White House.”
Particularly satisfying is the film’s cynical view of Democratic Party machine politics, personified by the terrifying Meryl Streep as an authoritarian, jingoistic Senator determined to see her son elected — a crucial corrective at a time when American union leaders have just lined up to be spat on by a Democratic candidate virtually indistinguishable from his Republican “opponent”.
Inevitably, though, this is the conspiracy theory school of politics. The problem is that bad men have got together in a room and and decided not to play fair; if this small clique can be prevented from carrying out its nefarious plan, democracy will be just fine.
There is no hint of how complex institutional and ideological networks create a system of power that cannot be broken at a single point; of how a distinct class of people rules not through conspiracy, but through legalised exploitation and in the last instance the consent of those they exploit. Capital doesn’t need brainwashing to control the US government!
The film’s political conclusion is classic populism: expose the bad capitalists, get rid of the corrupt politicians and leave the good eggs to get on with it.
I enjoyed The Manchurian Candidate, but it’s not really anti-corporate, let alone anti-capitalist, let alone pro-something better.