When it comes to politics, there is never one correct and true side. Whether you are Democratic, Republican, Communist, Fascist or anything in between, politics is a dirty system that leaves no clear cut victor. There are strengths and weaknesses for all sides, especially when the opposition will resort to anything to win.
Including murder and corrupting innocent lives.
This is the point of the 1962 political thriller “The Manchurian Candidate.” The film doesn’t take one particular side of the spectrum, but instead chooses to say that all political sides are flawed and that the idea of taking politics at face value is dead.
For its time, the film took many chances with telling a story about brainwashed soldiers attempting to kill political figures, especially with the rise of Senator Joseph McCarthy, the threat of Communism in America and the eventual assassination of JFK in 1964. Some people at the time believed that Lee Harvey Oswald was one of these soldiers. So this film has left a fascinating impact on the American psyche by convincing onlookers that its implausible premise could happen to anyone.
At the end of the Korean War, an American platoon is captured by a group of Chinese soldiers. The platoon is experimented on and brainwashed by a group of Russian and Chinese leaders to do their Communist bidding. Their intention: To get the leader of the platoon, Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey), into a comfortable political position so that he can assassinate the proper political figures that would lead to a secret Communist takeover of America.
Some people start to notice unusual behavior in Shaw, including his war partner Bennett Marco (Frank Sinatra). After Marco has bizarre nightmares of being brainwashed by the Communists, he takes it upon himself to find out what Shaw is up to and why he has been playing a lot of Solitaire lately.
What I walked away from “The Manchurian Candidate” with was it being one of the most thrilling and suspenseful films I had seen in a long time. It sets an eerie and otherworldly tone by making you question whether this is all real or just an illusion manufactured by the Communists, mostly through editing, cinematography and state of mind.
Information about how Shaw’s mind control works is conveyed to us through a meeting with figure heads of the Reds, but to Shaw and his men, all they see is a woman’s gardening club in New Jersey. To show the strength of the brainwashing, they even order Shaw to kill two of his men, both of whom show no resistance, and Shaw has no memory or regret of doing so.
Shaw is described as the perfect assassin, but that would imply that he acts somewhat human during these actions. When he is ordered to kill, he is nothing more than a computer carrying out an order. He has no feelings, no remorse, no recollection of even doing these acts. He’s not just the perfect assassin, he is the perfect killing machine hidden in plain sight.
Shaw is made all the more creepy with the addition of his overbearing and extremely controlling mother, Mrs. Iselin (Angela Lansbury). Not only does she have complete and total control over her second husband, Senator Iselin (James Gregory), but it seems like she had Raymond’s life planned out from the moment he was born. Much like with her husband, she can do whatever she wants to Raymond and she will always get her way.
Raymond comments that he could never beat his mother and he despises her for that. To her, Raymond is just a means to an end to enact her political agenda and have absolute power over not just her husband and son, but all of America. She is greedy, repulsive, selfish, controlling and will do whatever it takes to get her way.
What was it with parental figures and their terrible parenting in the early 1960s anyway? First “Psycho” and “Peeping Tom,” now this. That decade gave birth to some of the worst parents imaginable.
An interesting side note about “The Manchurian Candidate” is that after JFK’s assassination, Frank Sinatra bought all the rights and copies of the film and kept them hidden from everyone to see. From 1964 to 1988, it was impossible to watch this film. It is said that Sinatra did this out of remorse for what happened to JFK and that he felt partially responsible. Yet when he finally rereleased the film after 24 years, he said it was the highest point of his acting career for people to be able to watch such a wonderfully hard-hitting movie.
That should tell you the strength of this film. Not just to convince audiences that an impossible practice like reprogramming the brain can be taken as a fact, but that even after two decades, the film’s stance on politics still hits just as hard as it did in 1962. It is able to mirror real life politics, including Communism, McCarthyism and Left-wing vs. Right-wing and mock them all without being played for laughs.
“The Manchurian Candidate” is suspenseful, poignant, sharp and doesn’t pick any side over the other. To this film, all politics are ridiculous and flawed, so why should one side be better than the other?
Final Grade: A