2 Hrs., 10 Mins.
The Manchurian Candidate August 31, 2020
omething feels wrong; something has felt wrong. I don’t know exactly what was going on in the life of Maj. Bennett “Ben” Marco (Denzel Washington), the protagonist of 2004’s freaky adaptation of Richard Condon’s The Manchurian Candidate, before 1991. But one can pretty confidently infer that that was the year during which this very pronounced, unprecedented, unshakeable feeling of wrongness started
and never stopped for him. Ben hasn’t questioned it much. Isn’t it normal to have a hard time acclimating to "normalcy," feel like things aren’t quite right, after having fought abroad?
The wrongness began after a Gulf-War raid mission. What ensued was a by-now legendary battle. It's legendary because, according to its survivors, Sgt. Raymond Shaw (Liev Schreiber), the son of the notoriously jingoistic U.S. Senator Eleanor Prentiss Shaw (Meryl Streep), pretty much singlehandedly took charge just as the expedition was about to descend into hell. He wound up essentially saving everyone in the crew — all except two. “Raymond Shaw is the kindest, bravest, warmest, most wonderful human being I’ve ever known in my life,” seems to be the declaration most survivors let out when asked about Raymond’s character afterward.
Raymond was subsequently awarded the Medal of Honor. Then he started a political career as a liberal congressman. (Eerily, one senses little conviction in anything he’s saying when we see him giving speeches — he’s a buzzword-espousing robot.) Shortly after the action starts in The Manchurian Candidate, Raymond is confirmed as the Democratic party’s vice-presidential pick in the upcoming election — all thanks to the finagling of his mother, who would without a doubt win in a death-match against the similarly merciless stage mommy Rose Thompson Havoc. She’s a lioness with a more-than-passing sororal resemblance to Hillary Clinton. Streep might be the best thing about the movie, happier to be (and even better at) playing evil than she was in her notable other Big Evil Role in 1992’s Death Becomes Her as a youth-obsessed has-been actress. (Though Washington, playing against type, is striking as a man whose inner world discernibly crumbles the more he questions what he’s come to know about himself and his circumstances.)
With the announcement of Shaw’s prospective candidacy comes further confirmation of Ben's decade-strong wrongness. After he gives a speech commemorating the fateful 1991 mission and Raymond’s intrepid part in it, Ben is confronted at the venue by another one of the men in the unit, Al (Jeffrey Wright), whom he hasn’t seen basically since then and who wears torment like a way-too-thickly-spread foundation. You can’t help but notice it when he’s talking to you. Al is largely incoherent, but there’s no mistaking what can be gleaned from his streams of consciousness: that Shaw’s valor maybe didn't
exactly take the shape it was said to have, and that when Ben has outlandish-seeming nightmares about the battle, those might actually be memories seeking vindication. Is what he thinks is reality really the dream?
It feels silly to try to describe what those “nightmares” consist of, but what can concisely be said is by the looks of them, the 1991 near-catastrophe might have been engineered somehow — perhaps through some kind of brainwashing. But that seems crazy. Why would a bunch of soldiers be duped into thinking they participated in a battle that never occurred, that they were saved by someone who didn’t do anything? Was the supposed enemy a construct, the real one able to move on with impunity?
Ben can’t let go of what Al points out, much as he’d like to. The rest of The Manchurian Candidate, which has been claustrophobically directed by Jonathan Demme (his love for close-ups is far noisier than usual), watches as Ben gets closer to the truth underneath Al’s insistent ramblings. It’s not much of a spoiler, given the popularity of the 1962 movie adaptation of Condon’s novel, to say that all the conspiratorial, tin-foil-hatted orations have truth to them. As Ben does his quasi-detective work, he tries not to lose the few scraps of himself he can still hold on to. And as Ben does his quasi-detective work, we learn that Shaw’s new appointment has a severely dark undercurrent, and that his mother’s doting isn’t quite doting — something more nefarious.
The Manchurian Candidate is, of course, a hardly subtle allegory for the not-at-all cynical truth that big American government is more driven by individual drives for power and a devotion to corporate capitalism than it is society’s greater good. The film also functions as an alarming, authentic-feeling portrayal of PTSD. It’s a worst-case scenario drama that chillingly realizes the idea of, what if one of its sufferer’s paranoid anxieties was actually correct, with one’s grip of reality, so hard to firmly grasp in the first place, the real delusion? Demme’s direction so effectively visually externalizes inner turmoil that none of these ideas come across as heavy-handed as they might in other hands. Dark epiphanies just dig into existing bruises.
Demme’s movie arguably creeps under the skin more than the more-unanimously acclaimed 1962 cinematization — its evils aren’t so much rooted in an “over there”’s infiltration. While both the novel and its first adaptation had communism be the enemy — how frenzied, McCarthyist of them — the frightening entity in Demme’s version is merely the connection between politicians and business, a relationship characterized here at its most melodramatically sinister. This affinity is already here — has been here — and will likely remain. So why make your scary big bad a supposedly malevolent, Trojan-horsed ideology when there already exists something complementary to the story right here? The Manchurian Candidate is an arresting thriller, tightly made and forcefully acted. We might even call it fun to watch if we weren’t so aware that, wild-eyed conspiracies aside, so many of its concerns aren’t exclusive to fiction. A-