not in our stars, but in ourselves
Who doesn’t love a good conspiracy theory? I ask you. I’m a sucker for them myself, and so The Manchurian Candidate (1962) is right up my street. It’s a little uneven, and quite long, but if you’re reading this while wearing a tinfoil hat; if you subscribe to newsletters published by Fox Mulder and John Munch; if you have strong opinions about the Grassy Knoll; if, in short, you saw Conspiracy Theory (1997) and assumed it was inspired by you and your life – well, then, this is the movie for you too.
During the Korean War, an American platoon is ambushed by Soviets and taken into Manchuria. Years later, Sgt. Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey) is awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for his bravery in leading that platoon out from behind enemy lines back to the American side. Shaw’s controlling mother, Eleanor Iselin (Angela Lansbury), is eager to use her son’s officially sanctioned heroism to advance her husband’s career: Sen. John Iselin (James Gregory), a Communist-hunter with a shot at running for vice president. Shaw’s commander, Maj. Bennet Marco (Frank Sinatra), has a recurring nightmare in which Shaw murders two members of their platoon – platoon members who did in fact die during the time behind enemy lines. In the dream, the entire platoon is present first at a meeting of amateur horticulturalists, and then at a meeting of Communist brass – Soviet, Chinese, and Korean. Marco attempts to ignore the dream, but he can’t shake the feeling that it’s more than mere unconscious imagining. It must have happened. Sure enough, Shaw seems to have been brainwashed and programmed by the Communists to do their bidding. Considering his proximity to the rich and mighty, Marco worries a great deal about Shaw’s unwitting disloyalty. They all have various degrees of post-traumatic stress disorder – or “exhaustion,” as it was known at the time – but Marco sees something far more sinister in Shaw.
In 2004, The Manchurian Candidate was remade with Denzel Washington as Marco, Liev Schreiber as Shaw, and Meryl Streep as Shaw’s devoted mama. Rather than the Korean War, the platoon is captured in the Gulf War. I haven’t seen it. I don’t know that I want to see it, especially, but I’ll keep an open mind. What kept flashing through my mind as I watched this, however, was that the TV series Homeland is an excellent reboot of the same basic story: the war hero who returns after having been broken and re-programmed by the enemy – al-Qaeda in this case – to ride the wave of popular adulation all the way to the top, where he can do the enemy’s work. Homeland seems a better fit to me, too, because it’s about a war that’s almost as absent from the public consciousness as Korea: after the sound and fury surrounding the initial invasion, in 2003, and Saddam Hussein’s capture later that year, the Iraq War mostly faded from view. However fraudulent the reasons were for beginning the war, the war really happened and thousands of soldiers really were killed and otherwise brutalized in combat. Not that the Gulf War wasn’t a horror show itself, but the murkiness of the Iraq War seems a better fit for another Manchurian Candidate-type situation.
Anyway, back to the film. It’s an effective political thriller, if not quite as taut as it might be due to its two-hour-plus running time. Some of the performances are better than others: Harvey, despite his incongruous accent (the actor was of Lithuanian descent, spent his early years in South Africa, and studied in London – about as American as a Boer War), is quite good. Sinatra is uneven. When he’s playing the tortured, traumatized major, he’s very good. When he tries to be a man of action, engaging in some sort of martial arts throwdown with a Korean soldier, he’s not so good. Oh, well. Any other inconsistencies in the rest of the cast’s acting skills or lack thereof are more than offset by Lansbury’s perfectly poisonous performance. At first, she seems to be nothing worse than a control-freak helicopter mom – but she’s much worse than that. It’s a character and a portrayal that rank up there with Nurse Ratched in the scanty list of effective female villains. Do not mess with this mama bear.