Spin’s the Thing

Michael Atkinson

How much credit, exactly, does Jonathan Demme’s remake of John Frankenheimer’s 1962 paranoid-nation classic The Manchurian Candidate get for being the most extravagantly Chomskyite movie Hollywood has ever made? Perhaps not so much — the new movie swaps villainous Sino-Soviet brainwashers for mercenary multinational corporations, but this isn’t the thunder strike it might’ve been a few years ago. The peach pit of Our Man Noam’s four decades of activism has been the ultimate culpability of corporations for virtually every social ill, economic injustice and governmental policy. And even as recently as a decade ago, this was absurd, Bizarro-world news for both the media and the citizenry.

But today the public sphere all but entirely accepts the notion that big business pulls the majority of governmental strings. (A recent Washington Post/ABC poll found 62 percent of Americans now believe large business corporations have too much influence on the Bush administration.” Large corporations like ABC-owner Disney?) Voices in the media, of course, still feign flabbergasted dismay at the thought. And the public trusts them less, too, less than they ever have. Who would’ve thought we’d live to see it happen: The furious rivulet of Noam Chomsky has met and merged with the mainstream.

To what degree this seepage into the populi water table matters at election time is, by definition, irrelevant — both political parties are brokerage houses for multinational investment, and everyone knows it. (This year, we are faced with an apparent choice between the Carlyle Group-Halliburton combo, which has sustained virtually the entirety of the Bush administration, and the Heinz Company, to which Teresa Heinz Kerry has no linkage whatsoever.) Similarly, Demme’s movie is nonpartisan: The words Republican” and Democrat” are never uttered during the story’s twisty, over-baked challah of sleeper espionage, mind control, impromptu assassination plots and electioneering flimflam. That all politicians are fiendish scofflaws is a given, as is their role as lackeys greasing the money chutes of big business. (Older corporate-evil movies — like 1974’s The Parallax View—play the flipside, with corporations serving governmental conspiracies.) Given this much, the film gains weight like a rolling snowball the closer we get to November.

The historical template upon which the film is based (McCarthy-hunt context, Richard Condon novel, Sinatra-starring filmization, Dealey Plaza prophecy) is well-trod cultural terrain, and the ways and means Demme and his screenwriters employ to update the material are indisputably witty. Still, the revamped Candidate, for all of its neurotic agon and sci-fi MacGuffins, is simply not news. In fact, even as outrageous metaphor it pales beside the real deal.

The fact that Demme’s evil empire resorts to covertly installed brain implants in order to maneuver a pliable Mortimer Snerd into the White House implies a cartoonish ignorance that comes off something less than frightening. Isn’t it creepier, because it’s more genuine, to consider that the octopus of CEOs and politicos can do the same thing simply by lying and astutely expecting us to believe what they say?

Demme’s film suggests that the primary barrier to shepherding an amoral dimwit into the presidency is that same dimwit’s unpredictable rectitude and individualism. But since when has there been a shortage of bottom-feeders happy to take power in the name of profit? Why hardwire a politician for amoral order-taking rather than merely provide him with the opportunity? In the new Candidate, which mucks around with the raw rituals of elections more than the original needed to, the voters are seen as merely screaming Beatles fans, already slaves to cult-of-personality advertising. Therein lies the elephant-in-the-room Demme and crew overlooked: propaganda.

Overt, subliminal or obscuratist, it does the work of a million scalpel-brandishing brainwashers, and it leaves no scars. The real villain of the piece, public relations-“spin”-message marketing, already controls the American sensibility. Who needs assassination conspiracies? There’s little question that the corporate cabal would mind-screw honest American soldiers and future leaders with secret techno-nastiness if they had to. But they don’t. Demme would’ve voyaged into altogether more symbolically loaded dystopian waters if his scenario involved the invasive skull-manipulation of voters.

All the same, The Manchurian Candidate is an absolute freak among summer movie releases, and a redoubtable salvo in this amazing Year of Radical Movie Chic. It is best judged, for the time being at least, as a statement of outrage, an ephemeral act of intervention — after the 2004 election it may struggle for significance, without even a savvy relationship with its own cultural past to rescue it. Who knows it if it will change minds; outrageously questioning the essence of political imagery may be enough for now.

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Michael Atkinson is a film reviewer for In These Times. He has written or edited many books, including Exile Cinema: Filmmakers at Work Beyond Hollywood (2008) and the mystery novels Hemingway Deadlights (2009) and Hemingway Cutthroat (2010). He blogs at Zero For Conduct.
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