On a semiregular basis during the past four years, the same prompt has gone around Film Twitter: What is the defining film of the Trump presidency? Is it Todd Phillips’ Scorsese imitation Joker, all bluster and no substance? What about Bong Joon Ho’s Best Picture winner Parasite, about the ignorance of the wealthy and the desperation of class warfare? Or The Death Of Stalin, Armando Iannucci’s exploration of the pathetic power squabbles between the followers of the Soviet leader? A case could be made for any of these films, either because of their unintentional reflection of the times or their purposeful cataloguing of our increasingly dystopian reality. But to truly capture the scope of what we’re living through—the wide-scale corruption, the deep-seated immorality, and the straw-man evil of our current president—you have to travel back to 2004, to the George W. Bush presidency, and to Jonathan Demme’s exceptional remake of the 1962 classic The Manchurian Candidate.
With its pervasive sense of paranoia and its criticism of the American political process, the 2004 version of The Manchurian Candidate takes on renewed life in light of this election cycle. Its unrelenting uncanniness is found in how effectively the film underscores its major deviation from John Frankenheimer’s Cold War-era original: The enemy is homegrown. They’re the politicians meant to represent us, and the special-interests lobbying groups and private equity firms who bought their loyalty long ago.
Through a combination of (white) America-first braggadocio, fascist methodologies, and persistent fear-mongering, the self-serving villains Demme warned us against have taken up residence in the White House, and the threat they embody is that of capitalistic individualism, nepotistic sleaze, and unchecked authority running amok. National unity, impassioned public service, a belief that the American Dream should be an opportunity for all—the black hats of The Manchurian Candidate would scoff at those ideas as they consolidate power solely around themselves and the similarly amoral elites whom they serve. Sound familiar?
Although it was made during the first stage of the War On Terror, the inciting event of The Manchurian Candidate is the Gulf War. During Operation Desert Storm, a unit of young white, Black, and brown men comes under attack during a nighttime raid. When their commanding officer, Captain Ben Marco (Denzel Washington), is knocked unconscious, second-in-command Sergeant Raymond Prentiss Shaw (Liev Schreiber) steps up. The story goes that he held off an enemy helicopter alone, led the group through the desert for three days, and only lost two men in the battle. After the mission, Shaw is heralded as a war hero and elected to the U.S. House Of Representatives. Serving in the opposite congressional chamber is his mother, Eleanor Prentiss Shaw (Meryl Streep), a full-throated supporter of American imperialism.
The words “September 11th” are never uttered in The Manchurian Candidate, but its depiction of early-2000s America is recognizably molded by that day’s terrorist attacks. With a presidential election weeks away, news coverage alludes to instability everywhere: At home, where people worry about economic insecurity, environmental pollution, and increasing crime. Around the world, where the United States is continuously involved in international meddling, causing a wave of “body bags coming from all over the globe.” In this time of uncertainty, Senator Prentiss Shaw, Machiavellian in her crisp pantsuits, pompadour, and pearls, sees an opportunity—not just to demand increased domestic surveillance, increased military presence abroad, and increased funding for security forces, but to magnify the Prentiss dynasty. While she manipulates Americans’ yearning for normalcy in order to gain outsized influence, and plots and schemes to get Raymond into the White House as the next vice president of the United States, her son’s ascension doesn’t sit quite right with the remaining men from his unit, particularly Marco.
A recurring nightmare is the clue, in both Frankenheimer’s original and Demme’s remake, that something is very wrong with the heroic myth built up around Raymond. In the latter film, Washington’s Marco is besieged by surreal visions so intense he goes through bottles of NoDoz at a time to keep from sleeping. Every so often, Demme briefly cuts to black, as if the camera has blearily blinked to hide itself from the onslaught of Marco’s revelations. Tattooed women in hijabs ululating in Marco’s face; the blurry red smear of the sun in a hazy desert sky; the men who served alongside Marco and Raymond being tortured, brainwashed, suffocated, and shot. The disconnect between what Marco remembers, but is constantly told by everyone that he doesn’t actually remember, hints at something altered deep within him, and some part of him irrevocably contaminated.
That disorienting destruction of individuality is one of the many specialties of the mysterious Manchurian Global, a firm with ties to world leaders and rogue states. Their tactics are both macro—engineering coups, enacting government takeovers—and micro, in particular their pioneering research in mind control. Manchurian Global can take over anyone, infecting them with doubt and mistrust or compelling them to do whatever the company pleases, and their casual evisceration of an individual’s self-control for the pleasure of the powerful is an inconceivable evil. Manchurian Global has helped shape the trajectory of domestic and international politics for whoever has the most cash in hand, and suddenly Raymond’s campaign promise—“We must secure tomorrow, today”—seems unquestionably like a threat.
So many of the elements of The Manchurian Candidate are obvious reactions to, and distillations of, clashing American reactions to September 11th. By probing the relationship between the military-industrial complex and the jingoistic grandstanding that politicians and law enforcement used to expand power and quash dissent, Demme shifts the film away from the ideas of its predecessor. Instead of proposing that the greatest threat to Americans is the rest of the world, Demme made plain the havoc we’re wreaking both inside and outside our borders in a way that seems almost prescient. The thuggish tactics of Manchurian Global, funded with $1 billion in taxpayer dollars, bring to mind those of notorious security firm Blackwater. Methods akin to those Eleanor swears by to fight terrorists, including turning a blind eye toward torture, were revealed in a Senate Intelligence Committee report released in 2012.
The Manchurian Candidate never identifies any politician, neither the Shaws nor the incumbent president they’re running against, by a particular party. But Demme builds an unsettled atmosphere that demonstrates how dangerous a charismatic personality with fiery rhetoric, zero morals, egotistical zeal, and deep pockets can be. There is no greater danger to the American people, Demme argues, than politicians who covet and amass power for its own sake, and who shake hands with the Manchurian Globals of the world to maintain their supremacy. So thoroughly abandoning the ideals of camaraderie and compassion toward which America claims to aspire is a particular kind of perversity and irreversible betrayal. And this is where we have to talk about Senator Eleanor Prentiss Shaw, and President Donald J. Trump.
In 2020, the villainous portrait of Eleanor slaps particularly hard. The film’s enveloping environment of suspicion and panic is furthered by every choice Eleanor makes, all of which are presented as grandiose declarations in solidarity with the American people, but truly serve only herself. As a way to embolden her own legacy, Eleanor sacrifices her son to the Manchurian Global mind-control program and grooms him for the presidency, condescendingly nicknaming him her “plucky idealist.” Under the guise of straight talk, she trivializes colleagues’ concerns about protecting civil liberties and freedom of speech. Eleanor makes enemies out of those concerned with the brutality of her tactics. She mocks the soldiers who served alongside Raymond and returned home with Gulf War syndrome and PTSD. She is shameless in her connection to the infamous Manchurian Global, and amused when they self-effacingly tell her that business “could always be better.”
Eleanor’s array of misdeeds foreshadow our current moment. Such a do-more-harm ideology, under the guise of American patriotism, is what has guided the ruling party’s politics for the past four years: Destroy the environment, stifle the working class, ignore basic human dignity, and laugh at the idea of empathy. Serve only the wealthy, and preferably, only the white. Kick out anyone who doesn’t agree. Trump’s presidency has been an unending nightmare of policy decisions born not only out of racism, sexism, transphobia, and xenophobia but also a desire to consolidate power and crush opposition—an endless yearning for more.
Demme wasn’t incorrect in his suggestion that certain members of the political class serve the same masters and are united in their devotion to maintaining a staunch status quo: Manchurian Global, as Eleanor so defensively says, has donated to “both sides of the aisle.” There is a fair amount of fluidity in our political center. But unlike in The Manchurian Candidate, what is more glaringly obvious in our world is how those working against their fellow citizens’ best interests don’t need to go through the elaborate ritual of being kidnapped, tortured, and brainwashed to do so. They just do it of their own free will, cheered on by those for whom the cult of personality is a lure, politics is a zero-sum game, and conspiracy theories are a choose your own adventure of outlandishness.
And you don’t have to go digging through microfiche to find evidence of highest-bidder business principles—that sort of thing is just going on casually and blatantly in the open now, no shadowy cabal required. Trump openly courts relationships with oppressive regimes in Saudi Arabia and Russia while those same regimes kill journalists and undermine our democracy. As private citizens, Andrew Wheeler lobbied for the coal industry and Betsy DeVos funneled her family’s questionably accumulated riches into efforts to dismantle public schools; naturally, Trump chose them to head up the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department Of Education. Senator Tom Jordan’s (Jon Voight) concern that Raymond Shaw would become the “first privately owned and operated” person in line for the presidency seems quaint given how obvious the Republican Party has been about their intentions in the past four years. (Voight now seems to live in a reality that treats the 1962 Manchurian Candidate as a documentary; the less said about his hard turn toward conservative reactionary politics and his zealous support of Trump, the better.) The Manchurian Candidate’s premonitions about politicians who work for themselves, rather than for us, went unheeded.
Re-watching the film accomplishes a crystallization of the myriad ways those in power will work to marginalize us and deny us: They’ll make us doubt our own motivations, second guess our own memories, and question our own identities. (The term “fake news” wasn’t in the lexicon yet, but you can practically hear Streep’s Eleanor snarl it before launching into praise of her son, “forged in the desert in the dark.”) The only solution to such broad disenfranchisement, The Manchurian Candidate insists, is steadfastness and awareness, curiosity and commitment. No grand power will save us; certainly not Marco’s ultimate saviors in the film, the FBI. We have to save ourselves. “The future and survival of modern civilization, democracy, freedom—all depend upon it,” Eleanor says of the climactic election in The Manchurian Candidate. She was wrong about who to vote for, but otherwise? Senator Prentiss Shaw had a point.