Conspiracy Leery


With the air full of international tension, the film The Manchurian Candidate pops up with a rash supposition that could serve to scare some viewers half to death—that is, if they should be dupes enough to believe it. Bosley Crowther, New York Times, October 25, 1962

The Manchurian Candidate, Paramount’s remake of the 1962 paranoid thriller about brainwashed American soldiers and the sinister subversion of the democratic process, could be the latest political lightning rod to hit movie theaters since Fahrenheit 9/11. When Premiere reported that Paramount CEO and Kerry donor Sherry Lansing hoped the film’s “riff on Enron-like corporate sleaze influences voters,” ultra-right website NewsMax seized upon the story as ringing proof of Hollywood liberalism: “[Lansing] green-lighted the movie as a way of damaging President Bush.”

But as Paramount plans for the release of the revamped Cold War classic on July 30, director Jonathan Demme and his stars remain resolutely nonpartisan, reserving their contempt for general corporate evils and political crookedness—sure not to offend audiences from either side of the ideological divide. In anticipation of a conservative backlash, were they brainwashed by Paramount?

When questioned at a recent junket about the participation in the film of leftist activists such as Al Franken and Wyclef Jean, Demme, with a peace pin on his lapel, said, “We hope that this picture is as offensive to all the parties as it is to any in particular.” Asked about the hawkish views of Eleanor Prentiss Shaw, the film’s villain, who uses the fears of “another cataclysm, probably nuclear, on our soil” to get her military son on the presidential ticket, Meryl Streep responded, “That’s strategizing. It’s generic. Politicians talk that way.” And as if reading from a political script, Denzel Washington, whose character is a shell-shocked Gulf War veteran, said, “[The film] reminds me to not lose sight of the fact that these kids are coming home and we all need to embrace them.”

The film itself takes pains to avoid naming any political party. A corporation, the Parallax-like Manchurian Global, replaces the original’s conjoined menaces of Communism and McCarthyism. But if you look past the watered-down politics and muddled coda, TV-news crawls and background radio broadcasts convey a more direct criticism of corporate influence in the current White House. As a senator played by Jon Voight warns, the country could be threatened with the “first privately owned and controlled vice president of the United States.”

Producer Tina Sinatra—the youngest daughter of Frank Sinatra, star of John Frankenheimer’s original—is more forthcoming about the film’s prickly position in light of its release the week of the Democratic National Convention and an ongoing war. “I think this was the time it was supposed to be made,” she says. “You’ve got this particular climate, which we knew would support the film, and then Fahrenheit 9/11 bumped it up another notch. I think it’s stimulating and healthy and we’re glad to be a part of it. But it would be sad if this film became so overly politicized that it actually became partisan and then we’d lose half the audience.” In fact, she thought Paramount would push the film to next February to avoid an election-year release.

Still, as Michael Moore and Mel Gibson have proved, politicizing a film doesn’t alienate audiences; it sells tickets. Websites have generated buzz surrounding rumors that Paramount asked the filmmakers to trim scenes in which Meryl Streep’s character—a Machiavellian senator—appeared too Hillary Clinton-esque. The studio dismissed the story, and Streep has said that she drew inspiration from Bush adviser Karen Hughes and conservative columnist Peggy Noonan. Right-wing bloggers have jumped on both the rumor and Streep’s explanation as further proof of Paramount brass sleeping with the leftist enemy—minimizing the alleged demonization of Hillary and maximizing the vilification of conservatives like Hughes and Noonan. There’s a third option, of course—the whole rumor was orchestrated by Paramount’s marketing department.

Sinatra, who started planning the project after United Artists re-released the original in 1988, never intended the remake to be such a hot potato. “I don’t think we’d be having this conversation if it weren’t for the Michael Moore film,” she says. And though she acknowledges Manchurian Global’s similarities to Halliburton or the Carlyle Group, Sinatra points out, “We’re based on a novel written in 1959, we drew certain parallels before they even occurred. But if the shoe fits . . . ”

If the film’s connections to reality echo the original’s eerie prescience—anticipating the Kennedy assassination by 13 months—the coincidence is not lost on Sinatra. “My father sent us out of town to get us out of harm’s way. I remember that paranoia and fear,” she says. “So I think this film, at a substantially different level, is affecting people in the same way at test screenings. I’ve seen that the youth are frightened; there is a reason to worry,” she adds. “Maybe it’s too timely.”