Sunday, April 5, 2009

The Manchurian Candidate -- brainwashing and morality

Director: Jonathan Demme, 2004.

Demme, already an Oscar winner for the psycho-chiller The Silence of the Lambs, took a chance at remaking The Manchurian Candidate. The original 1962 John Frankenheimer movie starred Frank Sinatra, Laurence Harvey and Angela Lansbury, and was a masterpiece in its day. But Demme's bet paid off. His version, set in contemporary America, is every bit as chilling. It is a crackerjack political thriller with great performances from its three key cast members, Denzel Washington, Liev Schrieber and Meryl Streep.

Instead of the Korean War, this rendition begins in the first Gulf War in Kuwait in 1993. Denzel Washington is then Captain Ben Marco, commanding a night recon force. When their sortie hits an ambush all hell breaks loose. In the ensuing gunfire, Marco is knocked out and Sergeant Ray Shaw (Schreiber) saves all but two of the company despite being under heavy fire. For this extreme act of bravery Shaw is awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.

Moving ahead over a decade and it's election time in America. Marco is now a Major. Shaw is a congressman, whose mother Senator Eleanor Shaw (Streep) is pressing the Democratic Party to make her war-hero son the VP nominee instead of elder statesman Senator Jordan (Jon Voight). All seems well. Except Marco is having dreams, the same dream every night of that Kuwait battle. When another soldier (Jeffrey Wright) from his troop confesses to him that he is having this exact same dream, Marco begins to think there is a conspiracy.

The film's soundtrack has a steady cacophony of noise, from radios, televisions, traffic and talking. There is so much sound but no one is listening. Information streams steadily from the CNN newscasts about the elections, yet the people of America do not really know what is going on. Marco certainly doesn't, but as his suspicions deepen, he plunges into a frantic search for the truth.

When he discovers a chip implanted in his shoulder he realizes that he has been brainwashed by an international conglomerate after power. In the original film, Manchurian referenced the Communist North Koreans. Here, Manchuria Global is the conglomerate providing weapons to the Defense department as well as conducting biomedical research. Big Business has replaced ideological enemies.

Denzel Washington, always a solid actor, conveys palpably the panic and anxiety of a war veteran unsure of what is real. Schrieber balances the line between a cold killer and a fresh politician offering new hope to the American people. Streep is almost over-the-top as an over-controlling mother and megalomaniac politician bent on power.

The film is built on the foundation of fear and paranoia present since terrorism has taken center stage. The platform Shaw is running on is campaigning to free America from the grip of this fear. They are offering "security." But there is a difference between real security and feeling safe. Despite his bad dreams, Marco felt safe but was not secure.

As The Manchurian Candidate plays out, it becomes clear someone has messed with the heads of Marco and Shaw. In the war on terror, politics has allied with business in an attempt to win this war. But winning a war by unethical means raises the question of means and ends. Is it right to accomplish moral ends by immoral means? At one point, a politician rebukes the executives of Manchuria Global: "My father, Tyler Prentiss, never asked, 'Is this okay? Is this okay?' He just did what needed to be done." Doing what needs to be done is focusing on the ends and not the means. Where are the checks and balances? Indeed, who defines what the ends are? They may be OK and laudable today, but as power wields its corrupting influence the ends may subtly become less OK tomorrow and immoral by next election year.

Clearly, how we accomplish good ends is as important as the ends themselves. In the Christian faith, the character of the person is as important, perhaps more important, than the goals he accomplishes. If we win the election but lie along the way, trampling on others, even committing crime to become the winner we have lost our integrity.

Who is the real villain in this film? Is it the doctor who has performed unauthorized and unsanctioned biomedical experimentats on these troops without their knowledge or permission? Is it the senator with dynastic ambition strong enough to kill for? Is it the multibillion dollar company looking to make more profit without regard for the collateral damage? Surely it is all three. But could there also be some subtle guilt elsewhere as well? Is it possible that the American people are also indicted for not demanding more accountability from the politicians they elect and the corporations they invest in? We have seen, even recently, the fallout in multiple financial institutions and other companies examples of this failed accountability.

Certainly the unauthorized testing of dangerous implants on the soldiers is unethical. Even in the military, such tests require permission from those involved. But the film also highlights the ethical issues of mind-control, of brainwashing. With implants able to release regulated quantities of chemical and hormones it is possible that such control is no longer mere science fiction. Without the ability to make our own decisions, we are little more than robots. Indeed, theologically we must have free will to be held accountable by God for the sins we have committed. Anything else, and we cannot be deemed responsible. Even though there is a tension between free will and the sovereignty of God, both are crucial tenets of the Christian faith that are held by followers of Jesus.

Copyright ©2009, Martin Baggs

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