There are certainly no prizes for guessing that The Manchurian Candidate adapts a rather musty Cold War tale of “brainwishing” by the Communist Chinese to make it into an attack on the Bush administration — only one of many being churned out by the Hollywood dream factory this election season. Everybody has noticed it. When I saw the movie there were the same titters among the audience at the mention of the Manchurian baddies’ goal, “the first privately owned and operated Vice President of the United States,” that I heard on the appearance of the Dick Cheney-lookalike VP in The Day After Tomorrow. Everyone can grasp this message. Frank Rich, who is very far from being a Republican apologist, goes so far as to say of The Manchurian Candidate that he “cannot recall when Hollywood last released a big-budget mainstream feature film as partisan as this one at the height of a presidential campaign.” And that presumably includes The Day After Tomorrow, which is partisan enough itself, God knows.
Yet John Kerry’s Democratic convention, which ended a day before the movie opened, prompted the thought in me that maybe we were getting it all wrong. Maybe, in spite of appearances, it was not Bush who was the film’s target but his opponent. For surely Raymond Shaw, the zombie-like programmed “candidate” played by Liev Schreiber, had a lot more in common with John Kerry than he did with the President. Though obviously lacking not only in charisma but even in human warmth, Shaw was like Kerry in basing his whole claim to fitness for leadership on his past military record, and he was apart from a meager assortment of pieties employing the word “strength” — Candidate Shaw’s equally meaningless slogan was “Compassionate Vigilance” — extremely vague about what he would actually do if he were returned to power.
In the movie, a select group of Shaw’s former comrades had all been programmed to say that he was “the kindest, bravest, warmest, most selfless human being I have ever known,” just like Kerry’s — though both men actually held their brothers-in-arms in some contempt, Kerry having gone so far as to accuse them, back in the 1970s, of having committed unspeakable war crimes, which he also claimed to have witnessed. Moreover, in private the fictional candidate Shaw admits that “I have always despised the medal” that he won in the war and, with it, “the cloying adulation of the little people.” Kerry of course has a record of despising his own medals — though now that he hopes the cloying adulation of the little people will bring him to power he wishes us to forget about that and flaunts what he once pretended to have thrown away as a testimony to his “strength.”
The movie is atrociously badly written, and I thought at first when I heard that line about “the little people” that there could be no real live person, certainly no politician, from whose lips such sounds might actually have issued today. Surely a sense of irony in even the smallest degree would make it impossible. Surely no one could have survived for any length of time in the rough-and-tumble of political campaigning with a sense of self-importance so sublimely inviolate. But then dawned the spooky realization that if one could believe it of anybody, one could believe it of John Kerry, whose condescension in turning up after the convention to join the little people at Wendy’s — not to dine with them but to be seen to dine with them — showed that he might be fully up to such a locution in an unguarded moment. Certainly Teresa would.
For Kerry, is also like Shaw in allowing himself to be manipulated by a rich and powerful woman who looks down on inferiors and is known for the ruthless application of a sharp tongue to anyone who gets in her way. In Shaw’s case it is his mother, played by Meryl Streep, who is responsible for turning him into robo-candidate, but Kerry appears to have acquired his resemblance to Herman Munster all by himself and without any outside assistance. Even the long-range design for power — like that of the Manchurian Candidate dating from when he was still in uniform and returned to this country to wait his political moment — must have been his own work and not that of sinister foreigners, for when he was in Vietnam it appears to have been his idea to go back to the scenes of his heroic exploits later with a movie camera, just to make sure that there was a visual record .
Could it be merely accidental that Jonathan Demme’s updating of a 45-year-old novel has produced a hero who so much resembles this year’s Democratic nominee? Could it be possible that he only put in the anti-Bush stuff and hired anti-Bush actors like Miss Streep as camouflage to cover an anti-Kerry agenda? Perhaps Michael Moore or some other left-wing conspiracy theorist should make his next movie about this sinister plot.