THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE and Angry American Political Films

Sorry it’s been a little while. My computer died and I didn’t start a review site to write things from my phone, so, I apologize if you have missed what I write, my thousands of readers.

But what a time for my computer to die! A small warning, this review is going to be somewhat political, maybe even a little pretentious, but these are my opinions. If you disagree with any of them, please discuss them with me because I’m always down to learn.

SO! Here we go! The Manchurian Candidate (1962) is almost too relevant. I watched it today, 2016, and although the film is about Communists that brainwashed American soldiers to use them as assassins after the Korean War, the main theme still rings today. Eh, main themes. There are a few. Including: brainwashing, fear-mongering, irresponsible media, witch hunting, and, I guess, American exceptionalism. “Whaa, that’s so many main themes!” I know, thousands of reader. It’s an expertly crafted film. So wonderfully written and directed and acted. Everything about this movie is just awesome. It’d be pushing it to call it a satire… It’s not funny at all. But it’s in that realm of awareness.

But I digress. Quick plot to get you to understand where I’m coming from. Frank Sinatra plays Major Bennett Marco and suffers from the same recurring nightmare when he returns from the Korean War. Laurence Harvey plays Raymond Shaw, a Medal of Honor recipient who saved many men in the Korean War. His step-father (John) is a Joseph McCarthy-esque senator and his mother (Eleanor) pulls the strings on the step-father. She tells him what to say and how to say it. We soon learn that everything Raymond did was fabricated under hypnosis by the Communists. Whenever someone tells him to play Solitaire, he goes into a trance-like state and awaits orders. Bennett, tired of his nightmares and trying to figure out what they mean (his nightmares are shared with other people he served with), when in fact, they (the nightmares) are the moment they were under hypnosis by the Communists (and it is one of the most fantastically edited scenes I’ve ever seen).

That’s the gist of the plot. Complicated, but it gets less complicated as the film goes on (like any plot, I guess…). But let’s talk about the themes. In a second. We’re going to focus on the themes because this film, while the characters are complex and have their individual problems/motivations, they are acting out a) against their will and b) as ways to discuss these themes mentioned above. This is no way does not mean they are not expertly crafted characters. Dialogue is used to convey characterization (e.g. when Bennett is talking about all the books he’s read but also shows a boredom with his life BUT also sets up the last scene). I just think the themes are the driving factor in this film. I’m going to move on now.

Brainwashing: Everyone in this film is brainwashed by someone/something else. The soldiers by the Communists, Senator John by Eleanor, the people by the media, etc. Characters are trying to pull each other’s strings, more often succeeding than not.

Fear-mongering: Senator John’s big appeal is that he has a list of 207 known Communists in the government. (Or is it 247? Or is it 47? Ha! Jokes from the film!) John doesn’t even know what he’s talking about. But his whole campaign is built on these lies to scare the people into voting for him. Only he can fix America. “Wow, I think I’m starting to see the relevance to the politics of contemporary America!” HOLD ON WE’RE NOT THERE YET!

Which brings me to irresponsible media. While this may be a bit of a stretch, or I’m just paying attention to it because of 2016’s irresponsible media, there’s a lot of media focus on a guy (John) who is just saying a lot of bullshit. Congress groans whenever he tells them there are 47 known Communists in the government because they heard him say 207 last scene. But he’s so loud and he just keeps talking. And he’s saying outrageously spooky things that we just have to listen to him. The media in the film just need to report it. Even though everyone sees he’s full of it.

Witch hunting: as a commentary on American 1960s paranoia, of course there is witch hunting in this film. Really, you could tie fear-mongering and irresponsible media in with this category. This theme is personified and given weight when we hear Raymond’s back story. He fell in love with a girl, Jocelyn Jordan, who’s father was Senator Thomas Jordan. Senator Thomas and Senator John are enemies, to say the least, but this has to do with Eleanor’s plotting. Eleanor believes Senator Thomas to be a no good, dirty Communist. But then we get a line from Senator Thomas that says something along the lines that he never agreed with Senator John, thus he must be a Communist. Thus Jocelyn and Raymond have a doomed love. Thus tension buildup between Raymond and his mother! Look at all the ways this theme works its way into the plot!

American exceptionalism: This is the last theme I’ll talk about. This one will be kind of short because I think I made my point clear above that people are hunting Communists in the name of Lady Liberty. There’s even a sign near the convention at the end that says something like “AMERICA NEXT WITH -PRESIDENT NAME- AND JOHN ISELIN”. That slogan sure does sound famili- wait, not yet! American flags are everywhere, as is Abraham Lincoln (seriously, there’s a painting of him, a bust of him in John’s office, and multiple people dress up like him).

So let’s talk about today. Trump is the new president-elect. Which kind of sucks, but he’s whistling a new song now and toning it back. But, this is no way excuses what and how he talked about things to get to where he is. And that’s why this film is relevant to today. Fear-mongering. Trump built his campaign on saying awful things about Mexicans and Muslims and Terrorists. I read somewhere that Terrorism is the new Communism in regards to how the government thinks about it. Yes, terrorism is a real thing that must be addressed, but to go to wars that didn’t make sense to anybody or to have this fear of people who look Arab is just kind of, you know, witch-hunty. And some of the blame to this can be put on the irresponsible media. I watched some tapes from the McCarthy hearings today (purely by coincidence) and Edward Murrow’s response to McCarthy. It’s amazing to see how old news would hold the camera on something for so long without cutting. Modern news must think we’re all pretty stupid to cut the camera that much to “keep our attention”. If you turned on the TV in the last year, all you had was a new soundbyte from Trump saying something ridiculous and then him having the nerve to say he didn’t say that (excuse my emotions, but politically angry films are supposed to make you politically angry, stay tuned next week when I maybe watch All the President’s Men for the first time and talk about how Clinton/the DNC are just as bad as Trump). And then there’s American exceptionalism. Much like the characters in the film fetishize Lincoln, there is much festishization happening with Reagan, aka the Republican party’s pinup boy. Looking to the past and being nostalgic about it is fine, but to have that nostalgia control your life? That’s where things go wrong. Jon Stewart said in an interview (the last week or so) that Trump never defined what made America great. Instead, Trump just said we need to “make America great again,” which is just a bigly (hey-o) general statement that is meant to appease that sense of nostalgia.

So! I’m horribly sorry with how off track I got, but I did warn you. This is a relevant film. It’s actually a bit spooky how relevant it is. But that’s the power of picking powerful themes. Arthur Miller compared McCarthyism to the Salem Witch Trials and I’m sure someone in Salem during those times compared it to something else. There’s this scary Other that we’re always looking for and films can give us a way to talk about it without screaming at each other.

Also, on a somewhat related note, this is the second film I’ve watched this year that had a political “scandal” in the background of the film that ended with a huge gathering of people with a really great ending (that other film is Blow Out (1981) which is also relevant, but probably less so than The Manchurian Candidate).

I had other points I wanted to talk about with this film but I have forgotten. Oh yeah! So, this film was almost not picked up by anyone because it was so political. Imagine seeing this in 1962, golly! I haven’t seen much of John Frankenheimer’s work but he’s a pretty rock n’ roll director (I will consider any film made in or before the early 1960s that uses handheld to be rock n’ roll (but he uses the handheld shots with purpose! If you don’t get excited about anything today at least get excited about a director that knows how to use the camera to effectively tell a story!)). But this film almost not being picked up kind of brings me back to the irresponsible media theme. There’s the Frankfurt School of though in film criticism that a bunch of pessimistic dudes (understandably though because I think they say the Holocaust) that watched films and saw them as a way to inject ideologies into the passive moviegoers. This was called the Hypodermic Needle Effect. The fact that this film almost wasn’t picked up (and it probably only got picked up because Sinatra was in it) and the fact that I, at the moment, cannot think of any really great political films in the last few years should be a potential sign that we’re still in this Hypodermic Needle mode (cough Marvel films cough (not making fun of them I just think they’re okay and we can talk about that another day) cough). We need relevant and challenging political films to get us talking about anything! And that’s one reason why I’m somewhat excited for Trump. Imagine all the angry media we’ll have in the next four years. It’ll be a bad time for life but perhaps a glorious time for storytelling.