In the remake of 1962's "The Manchurian Candidate," in theaters now, the original's communist villains have been replaced by a more timeless bogeyman, the evil corporation.
Manchurian Global, the remake's antagonist, is a multinational conglomerate whose revenue exceeds the European Union's and which has designs on controlling the White House. It is the latest of a long line of corporations, factual and fictional, that have served the cinema as capitalist villains, either as active agents of evil or omnipresent dehumanizers of the human soul. First captured by Fritz Lang's 1927 "Metropolis," the concept endures, appearing as recently as the 1999 comedy "Office Space," a near-documentary of cubicle culture.
Manchurian Global represents the American loss of trust in the corporation to the extreme -- it is Evil Inc. During a time of protests over globalization and media conglomeration, white-collar perp-walks, wrong-headed mergers that enrich executives but force massive layoffs, million-dollar corporate bacchanalias and indicted energy company executives on a first-name basis with the president, many are willing to believe corporations have the access and avarice to do anything. If Manchurian Global does not exist, it is recognizable enough to contemporary movie viewers that it might as well be trading on Nasdaq. (Ticker symbol: BLZB.)
Contrast this with a time when American corporations inspired nearly blind faith in their stability and stewardship -- consider the third-generation Detroit assembly-line autoworker or the college grad who went to work for IBM and retired from management 45 years later, having spent his entire career with one company.
"The notion that businessmen were examples of probity and prudence is classic in all the '50s movies," said Philip Scranton, professor of history of industry and technology at Rutgers University. ". . . Now, we think of irrationality in business as everyday lunch meat."
And as many of the 20th century's evils have been dispatched -- communism, Nazism, fascism -- barely restrained capitalism-gone-bad has persevered as a go-to hobgoblin. Some may see the Kozlowskis and Rigases and Fastows of today and think of the robber barons of the 19th century, who were so feral and exploitative that they led to government regulation and the rise of labor unions.
The U.S. financial crises of the '70s -- stagflation, the oil shortage, the rise of foreign competition -- were followed by the ethical lapses of the '80s (S&L meltdown, junk-bond high jinks) and the legerdemain of the '90s (Enron, et al.), said Christine Rosen, a professor of business history at University of California at Berkeley, contributing to the "The Manchurian Candidate's" potential resonance in the mind of 2004 movie audiences.
"There is a real crisis of distrust and suspicions and concerns about business," she said. "The movie picks up on that and reflects that."
"The Corporation," a current Canadian documentary, takes the novel approach of psychoanalysis in arguing that capitalism is ultimately an unsustainable system. Noting that U.S. law recognizes corporations as individuals, giving them broad rights, it asks the question: What sort of a person would a corporation make? The answer, according to a lefty's laundry list that includes Michael Moore and Noam Chomsky: a psychopath who tries to manipulate thought, lies without guilt and is dangerous to himself and others.
"All these behaviors are in the extreme but are the sort that enterprises do all the times in one subset or another, except for those like Enron that tried the whole bundle," Scranton said.
Some audience members laugh knowingly during scenes in which Manchurian Global is referenced. Amid the chuckles, the name "Halliburton" could be heard wafting about Washington theaters at several recent showings.
Not quite. Halliburton, the Texas energy firm formerly headed by Vice President Cheney, may reach beyond oil fields and into the Defense Department, but in the film, Manchurian is said to be made up of past presidents and prime ministers -- the ultimate geopolitical insiders' club.
If you're a conspiracy theorist, you hear "Manchurian Global" and think "Carlyle Group," the world's largest private equity firm, which buys and sells companies like Monopoly properties and whose roster of current and former staff and advisers includes George H.W. Bush, James A. Baker III, Richard G. Darman and former British prime minister John Major. Director Jonathan Demme even said that Carlyle was one of the models for his film.
But even that's not big enough. Maybe Manchurian Global is Carlyle after buying Halliburton and Genentech, if it were run by crazy, chip-implanting Boer scientists.
Movies such as "The Manchurian Candidate," "The Corporation" and, to a degree, "Fahrenheit 9/11" tap into American ambivalence toward capitalism, Rosen said.
"There is this idea that came out of the Reagan years and the defeat of communism that the free market is the cure-all for everything, yet there is a fear of one big gigantic company running everything," she said. "We have a paradox -- we celebrate the free market but fear big companies."
Humans have a lot of practice fearing multinational conglomerates.
Think of the first global corporation -- the Catholic church -- with its offices in many countries (monasteries and churches), language peculiar to the institution (Latin), aggressive takeover methods (the Crusades), vigorous marketing campaign (missionaries) and competition-killing strategy (the Inquisition). It took 1,500 years and Martin Luther's entrepreneurial spirit to create a viable alternative for consumers.
From the Catholic church sprang the Knights Templar, the Crusades' elite soldiers and the world's first international banking system, as the knights transmitted money along the pilgrims' path from Europe to the Holy Land. As such, they had the power that went with wealth, and were viewed with such suspicion and envy as to be eradicated by France's Philip IV, something of a medieval trust-buster.
And of course there were the Freemasons, who grew from a guild of medieval craftsmen to become a secret society of Western world leaders, celebrities and industrialists, including George Washington and LBJ, Ben Franklin and Frederick the Great, Charles Lindbergh and Henry Ford, Buzz Aldrin and Booker T. Washington.
Omnipotent organizations form in power vacuums. For those who think Rupert Murdoch is too powerful, look back to the end of the 19th century, when the federal government's regulatory authority was so small it would be unrecognizable to us. In those times, sprawling, self-interested corporations filled the void. And they weren't just depicted in the media -- they often were the media.
Powerful press lords -- Joseph Pulitzer, William Randolph Hearst -- essentially exercised their own foreign policy through their newspapers, goading the populace and Congress into war in a fashion that would be impossible now.
In 1941's "Citizen Kane," Orson Welles's Charles Foster Kane, a thinly veiled Hearst, bellows at his wife when she questions his megalomania:
"But Charles, people will think . . ." she begins.
"What I tell them to think!" Kane thunders, a phrase that presaged "1984" by eight years.
Other industry captains have served as models for plutocratic movie villains. South African gold magnate Charles Engelhard was the template for Auric Goldfinger, laser-wielding gold-hoarder in the 1964 James Bond thriller.
Yet those big-screen corporate titans are solitary madman billionaires or heads of vast crime syndicates. It's hard to imagine in this era of media saturation that such a person could exist; presumably it would have come to light by now if, say, Microsoft were just a cover for a diabolical software genius who actually spends his time stroking a long-haired white cat while plotting global extortion. (Aside from rolling out new versions of Windows, that is.)
Are corporations good or evil? Or are they amoral and pragmatic? In some film depictions, corporations are actively malevolent. In others, they are merely suffocating in their omnipresence, rolling over the rest of the world with indifference.
The recently released "Catwoman" features a cosmetics company that makes an addictive skin cream -- stop using it and your face deteriorates. Exposure to the company's toxic waste somehow metamorphoses Halle Berry into Catwoman, giving her superpowers not demonstrated by residents of, say, Love Canal.
On the other hand, Michael Moore's 1989 "Roger & Me" details the devastating consequences of General Motors' decision to pull a manufacturing plant out of Flint, Mich. No one accuses former GM chief executive Roger Smith of intending to turn Flint into an urban ruin where people eat rabbits to survive, yet it happened when the GM plant, and its 30,000 jobs, left.
An ongoing battle between surrogates for God and the devil rages at the heart of "The Hudsucker Proxy," the Coen brothers' 1994 homage to New York corporate life at the end of the Eisenhower era. Two aging Hudsucker janitors duke it out for the soul of Tim Robbins's main character as he plunges earthward from the Hudsucker tower. In a period detail, Hudsucker -- like many self-contained corporate giants of the time -- had its own in-house R&D, manufacturing, marketing, advertising and accounting departments. Today, many of those jobs would be in Bangalore.
Manchurian Global is the most ominous of firms, a vast and faceless U.S. conglomerate pulling unseen levers and wielding power with impunity, something smaller nations have grown grimly accustomed to. United Fruit, for instance, with its close ties to the Eisenhower administration and the CIA, was Guatemala's largest landowner and employer and its de facto government, writes David Halberstam in "The Fifties." Just last week, reports surfaced that the Securities and Exchange Commission is investigating whether four major U.S. oil companies bribed the dictator of Equatorial Guinea.
In many ways, today's corporations are more powerful than nations and much more modern. Corporations are borderless nation-states, many of which have higher economic output than most sovereign countries. Ethnic infighting and border hatreds rarely affect their ability to form alliances. They are not shackled by the history of the regions in which they operate.
They are low-drag creatures, less centralized than in the past, able to move instantly about the globe, adapting to political pressures to keep profits flowing. They usually have stockholders, but are not burdened with electorates; corporate rebellion rarely ousts leadership in the way that elections do.
Manchurian Global -- a defense contractor, among other ventures -- profits most from a world in constant chaos. Therefore, it creates a programmable president who will craft a foreign policy to keep U.S. armed forces engaged.
Even before Eisenhower gave a name to the military-industrial complex, it loomed as a menace in 20th-century film and literature. In "1984," Winston Smith reads in a forbidden tract that the ultimate aim of an authoritarian regime is continuous war, to ensure ceaseless industrial production -- enough to expend raw material but not raise the standard of living -- and justify a perpetual police state that suppresses individual rights in the name of wartime security.
Referencing the war in Iraq and White House ties to industry, if a company like Manchurian Global took over the government, joked Rosen, the Berkeley professor, "what would be different?"
Manchurian Global's ultimate aim -- government control -- was denounced by Marx, who wrote that the state is simply the executive committee of the ruling class. A tension between the government and corporate world is of value to both sides, said Scranton, of Rutgers.
"If we go one way, we've got communism, and that didn't work out so well," he said. "The other side is corporate-managed public policy, which would be equally unsuccessful. What makes me nervous about this sort of [movie] is that it shows it's in the interest of the corporation to take over the state. Smart people who run corporations know that is not true."