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The Manchurian Candidate and JFK

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Jonathan Demme has just released his version of The Manchurian Candidate. Some critics believe that the film is a comment on the JFK assassination. This is an extract from a film review by David Walsh.

The work borrows its title and narrative thrust from the 1962 John Frankenheimer film, with Laurence Harvey and Frank Sinatra, about a US soldier brainwashed and programmed during the Korean War to become a “sleeper” assassin.

Frankenheimer’s film (scripted by the late George Axelrod) captured something essential about the atmosphere of the Cold War era. It attacked both the “left” (the Soviet and Chinese “communists”) and the right (McCarthyite demagogues in the US), in the name of the committed liberal middle.

Demme’s new film is set in the not so distant future when the US government’s “endless war on terror,” as it is termed, has been extended to Guinea, Indonesia and elsewhere. One giant conglomerate, Manchurian Global, has profited the most. Its close links to the Washington political and military establishment have allowed it to accumulate billions, in some cases from no-bid contracts.

A right-wing US senator, Eleanor Shaw (Meryl Streep), browbeats her party’s leaders into accepting her son, Gulf War hero and congressman Raymond Shaw (Liev Schreiber), as their vice presidential candidate in place of veteran liberal (“one-worlder”) Senator Thomas Jordan (Jon Voight). It rapidly becomes apparent that Shaw is Manchurian Global’s man, with company officials determined to see elected “the first privately owned and operated vice president of the United States.”

… There are valuable insights in Demme’s film. It paints a picture of a political system thoroughly pervaded and dominated by corporate power, and dedicated to the preservation of that power. “Cash is king,” explains a Manchurian Global executive. The company, which seems to owe something to both Dick Cheney’s Halliburton and the Carlyle Group, benefits from the global “war on terror” and at least implicitly has every interest in its continuation.

The Manchurian Candidate unfolds as a giant conspiracy against the democratic rights of the population. Marco asserts at one point: “This isn’t an election. It’s a coup—a regime change in our own country.” This is not science fiction, this is recent American history: the manufactured sex scandal and impeachment drive against Clinton; the hijacking of the 2000 election; the unanswered questions surrounding the September 11 attacks; the criminal war against Iraq; the present attempt to intimidate the population through “terror alerts.” All elements of an escalating assault on the democratic rights of the population that lays the basis for a police-state.

When asked by an interviewer (ComingSoon.net) whether his film might increase the present paranoia in the US, Demme rightly answered: “We certainly hope that it won’t relieve any of the paranoia. We’ve got a lot to be paranoid about today.”

Moreover, Demme’s film quite forthrightly represents corporate and government officials prepared to use ruthless violence around the globe to defend their social interests. Wars, assassinations, provocations, illegal activity of all types—nothing is beyond them. These are gangsters in expensive suits. The criminalization of the American political elite finds a certain expression here.

In an obituary of Frankenheimer, I wrote: “The Manchurian Candidate is a film that literally drips with ‘sweat,’ quite consistently off the characters’ faces as they undergo their psychological torments. It is trying far too hard. Nonetheless, with all its limitations and implausibilities, Frankenheimer’s film does manage to convey something of the paranoia and delirium of the Cold War years. When Shaw simultaneously assassinates both [his step-father and presidential candidate Senator John] Iselin and his mother, who has turned out to be his ‘Communist’ controller, one assumes Frankenheimer and Axelrod are making the ultimate liberal statement about ‘extremism.’”

Only a year before, in his farewell address, President Dwight Eisenhower called on the population to “guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.” A year later rogue elements of this same military-industrial complex apparently carried out the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.….

After all, the exposure of the fact that 40 million people continued to live in poverty in the US (in Michael Harrington’s The Other America) did not lead in 1963-64 to meaningless and reactionary appeals for “individual responsibility” and paeans to the “market” as the solution to each and every problem, as it would today. The administration of Lyndon B. Johnson felt obliged to declare an “unconditional war on poverty” in January 1964 and initiate the various Great Society programs. (That this war was declared, but never fought, speaks to the organic impossibility of such a struggle being waged within the framework of capitalism.)

A great deal of water has flown under the bridge since that time. American society finds itself in an advanced state of crisis, with a far narrower margin for maneuver. Demme, with undoubted sincerity, approaches his material from a quite different historical angle than Frankenheimer, with all the social and ideological baggage of the past several decades to contend with.


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