Wednesday, August 04, 2004

The Manchurian Candidate: The Return of the Repressed

If Fahrenheit 9/11 (Dir. Michael Moore, 2004) is a perfect filmic expression of the Anybody But Bush ideology of liberal intellectuals, The Manchurian Candidate (Dir. Jonathan Demme, 2004) unexpectedly -- despite the intentions of its creators -- serves as a cinematic vehicle for the return of the politically repressed:
The first "Manchurian Candidate" was an exemplary piece of liberal paranoia, imagining the nefarious collusion between foreign, Communist totalitarians and their most ferocious domestic enemies, a conspiracy of the political extremes against the middle. That film, which climaxed at the 1956 Republican convention in New York, looked back from Camelot at an almost-plausible alternative history with a mixture of alarm and relief. The center, in the solid person of John F. Kennedy's pal Frank Sinatra, had held.

The new version, after a prologue in the first Persian Gulf war, unfolds at a time succinctly and scarily identified as "today," and proceeds from the nominating convention of a major political party toward a frenzied Election Night finale, feeding on an anxiety about the future that is neither exaggerated nor easily assuaged. Sinatra's character, Maj. Ben Marco, is played by Denzel Washington, and this time Marco is not the cool, rational unraveler of a vast conspiracy, but rather one of its victims.

The public, coming upon this movie in a fraught political season, may be more interested in identifying the perpetrators. Though the party in question is not identified, it does not much resemble the real-world party currently in power. In the movie the United States is subject to terrorist attacks, which have become so routine that they are mentioned only in passing, and is fighting wars in small countries around the world.

The chief danger to the republic, however, emanates not from the extremes -- a fanatical foreign enemy combined with a zealous administration -- but from the center, from the moderate wing of the opposition party and its corporate sponsors. In a smokeless back room at the convention, a venerable, liberal senator, played by Jon Voight (who does this kind of thing so often you may think he's playing himself), is dumped from the ticket in favor of Raymond Shaw (Liev Schreiber), a young New York congressman whose mother, Senator Eleanor Shaw (Meryl Streep), is a formidable power broker and a tireless promoter of her son's career. (A. O. Scott, "Remembrance of Things Planted Deep in the Mind," New York Times, July 30, 2004)
Even if the political allegory at the center of its plot is too disturbing for the liberal viewer to accept consciously, the film implants a visual reminder of "a certain real-life New York senator" (Scott, July 30, 2004) in her memory:

Beyond the visual memory, Eleanor Prentiss Shaw's hawkish swagger -- "I will do whatever I can to protect America from anyone who opposes her" -- is a cartoonish reproduction of Hillary Rodham Clinton's:
Even as the war in Iraq proves unpopular with her core base of liberal supporters, not to mention some mainstream Democrats, Mrs. Clinton has emerged as one of the most prominent Democratic backers of the military activities. In recent months, in speeches and interviews, she has defended her vote authorizing the Republican president to wage war, argued for more troops in Iraq and sided with President Bush's contention that Saddam Hussein was, as she put it, "a potential threat" who "was seeking weapons of mass destruction, whether or not he actually had them."

Last week, with violence surging in Iraq, she stood by her decision to approve a Congressional resolution permitting military action there, though she did accuse the president of failing to build sufficient international support for the war and failing to plan adequately for the aftermath of Mr. Hussein's downfall. And she appeared to agree with President Bush's contention that the conflict in Iraq was part of the broader fight against terror, indicating that global threats like Mr. Hussein took on greater urgency in a post-Sept. 11 world. "After 9/11, a lot of threats had to be looked at with fresh eyes," she said in the interview. ("If It Flies Like a Hawk, Could It Be Mrs. Clinton?" New York Times, April 23, 2004, p. B1)

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