New Age Paranoia by Tom Jennings
[published in Freedom, Vol. 65, No. 24, December 2004]
Jonathan Demme's The Manchurian Candidate effectively updates John Frankenheimer’s classic 1962 Cold War conspiracy thriller – with Gulf rather than Korean War veterans brainwashed into becoming political moles and assassins by corporate, not Russian, agents. Given the present ‘War on Terror’ and the better-understood amoral criminality of the military-industrial complex (as well as the prevalence of government via mythology, mystification and spin), these revisions seem appropriate – as do the science-fictional (but only just!) electronic surgical implants replacing good old-fashioned behavioural conditioning. The unfolding plot (in both senses) shows the Army bureaucrat (Denzel Washington in Frank Sinatra's role) and Vice Presidential candidate (Liev Shrieber for Laurence Harvey) gradually resisting their ‘Gulf War Syndrome’ zombification amid manipulation by Shreiber’s Senator mother (Meryl Streep instead of Angela Lansbury) and sundry political, big business and media masterminds, crooks, lobbyists, lackeys and lickspittles.
However, while the new denouement is very neat, we lose much of the political sharpness of the source novel by Richard Condon, wherein McCarthyism succeeded thanks to the Soviet plotters who found it thoroughly congenial to their authoritarian aims – a fascinating, if muddled, attempt to disentangle the contradictions of right-wing politics. Unfortunately, the supposedly liberal-left Demme substitutes benign intelligence agencies which only ever use dirty tricks to foil the multinational menace (I kid you not!) and honourable old-school patriotic Party patricians who have fought corporate takeover for years (yeah, right …).
Conspiracies have long been fertile territory for cinema – where the close-up simulation of intimacy renders historical phenomena in individual terms. Action films hysterically mobilise adolescent masculinist muscle in desperate response, whereas at least political thrillers sense the world’s complexity. And given that paranoia represents the psychotic underbelly of individualism, parapolitics likewise seductively suggests that humanity’s ills result from the hidden agendas of evil elites. Of course the latter exist, and create havoc. But the more difficult truth – that domination is sedimented into the routine material of institutions, discourses, bodies, societies and economies – remains opaque to mainstream media, culture and politics. Both Manchurian Candidates aspire to stir up the murky depths. In their different ways, both fail enjoyably.
author of Winter Kills – which similarly smuggled unusually interesting political speculation into Hollywood (dir. William Richert, 1979).