In the 1962 movie "The Manchurian Candidate," the bad guys were communists who had perfected the techniques of mind control. In the remake, which premieres this week, the bad guys still have a major interest in brainwashing, but now they're executives of a multinational conglomerate called Manchurian Global. They're crazed capitalists. They're Enron types. They're scary white guys in suits who look like they just came from lunch at the Palm.
Paranoia, a hallowed element of American political thought, has always been adaptive to its historical moment. We no longer can fear the Red Menace. We need a new enemy upon which to focus our fears and anxieties. But the new version of "The Manchurian Candidate" raises a disturbing possibility: that paranoia itself is in crisis.
A worrisome thought.
You can imagine the challenge of redoing "The Manchurian Candidate" in 2004. In 1962, the communists were a reliable enemy, full of dark schemes. Sure, it was a stretch to imagine that communists would engage in an elaborate conspiracy to brainwash a squad of U.S. soldiers and turn one into an assassin and so on, but the Russians did have a silly streak. We secretly miss the Reds. Today's Chinese don't quite cut it: They're communists-with-MBAs. They're irrepressible capitalist roaders.
Therefore screenwriters today have to scramble. They must somehow invent a secret group of evildoers who are not only plausible, but more nefarious than the folks who currently operate fully in the open. Paranoia requires that the bad guys be secretive, but so many bad guys today have a Web site, a national office and a media relations department. You can wander around the nation's capital, knocking on doors, and hear people say, "We're basically interested in taking over the country and imposing our own narrow, crabbed model of human society."
In certain zip codes of the Washington area if you said you were writing a movie about a stolen election, people would assume it was a documentary. If you elaborated, and said it's really about a secret cabal that uses American foreign policy as a revenue enhancer and wants to plant its own stooge in the White House, your listeners would tactfully inform you that Michael Moore already made that one.
Today's scriptwriters couldn't use terrorists because, for technical reasons, they don't satisfy the deeper needs of true paranoiacs. They do operate secretly, but with an agenda that is transparent. They are completely open about what they're up to. They say: "We hate you, because we're religious fanatics, and we think your women are whores. We want to kill you all." No, they're useless for a real conspiracy theory: Much better to have the white guys in suits.
The Manchurian Global operatives are barely even seen in the movie. What they do and who they are and what they believe isn't really the point. The more important thing is that there are people out there who are messing with your mind.
The malevolent executives of Manchurian Global have decided that they will use advanced brainwashing techniques to manufacture their own American political candidate, someone who occasionally has to be yanked back into the lab to have a new hole drilled in his head and his neural implant upgraded. Forget relying on hypnosis; they've got a little metallic thingamajiggy that they can insert right into the frontal cortex. The ultimate goal of the evil businessmen is vague, something to do with privatizing the military.
(The cynic might argue that the movie has no shot to win the Oscar for Plot Clarity. Some Democrats and liberals might suggest that any money-grubbing executive wanting to take over the world would find a lower risk in simply voting for Republicans. Others in a less partisan mode will note that there already is a form of mind control that the wealthy can exert on politicians, and it's called the "campaign contribution." Why would people manufacture their own brainwashed candidate when they can just buy one off the shelf?)
The movie does a savvy job of throwing chum to paranoiacs of every political stripe. Sure, Manchurian Global is right out of the Left's playbook, but conservatives are offered the choicest character in the film: Sen. Eleanor Shaw, who inevitably brings Hillary Clinton to mind. Meryl Streep plays the role at a higher emotional pitch than the Hillary we typically see, but the calculating intelligence is the same, as is the alleged thirst for supreme power. The paranoid Right has believed since 1992 that the Clinton agenda has always had Hillary at its center. Bill was a stalking horse. She's a socialist, you know. When she takes over, children will be taken from the parents and raised by the entire village.
Paranoia is a permanent element of American politics. It's an adaptable trait. The question you have to ask yourself is: Who am I worried about now? If it weren't for fear, loathing, paranoia and anxiety, the American electorate would have almost no feelings whatsoever.
Richard Hofstadter wrote a famous essay on "The Paranoid Style in American Politics" for Harper's magazine in 1964, and he characterized the dark mind-set of the far right wing: "The old American virtues have already been eaten away by cosmopolitans and intellectuals; the old competitive capitalism has been gradually undermined by socialistic and communistic schemers; the old national security and independence have been destroyed by treasonous plots, having as their most powerful agents not merely outsiders and foreigners as of old but major statesmen who are at the very centers of American power."
The Right had the market on paranoia pretty well cornered in the early 1960s, but Hofstadter found traces of it throughout American history, among people of all political inclinations. In fact, the true paranoiac doesn't have much interest in ideologies. He doesn't really believe that other people believe in the things they say they believe in. He assumes there are ulterior motives. Money, usually.
Ralph Nader might not be paranoid (it is, we might note, a clinical term), but he is certainly deeply suspicious. He is essentially running for president on a platform that says you can't take the stated ideologies of the major political parties at face value. They're two wings of the same dastardly enterprise, he believes. Forget their "message," forget their "political platform": Just follow the money.
"Fahrenheit 9/11" is also remarkably ideology-free. Michael Moore ignores the stated neoconservative goal of expanding democracy in the Middle East. Israel goes unmentioned. Forget all those times that Paul Wolfowitz has suggested that the war in Iraq will have this magical transformative effect on the Arab world. That didn't make the cut. Moore's point is, you can't trust a guy who spits on his comb.
His larger message is, there are connections out there, linkages, secret deals among people with secret handshakes. The rich help the rich. The powerful help the powerful. The oil companies get a pipeline and the Little Guy gets the shaft.
By the way: George W. Bush and John Kerry were both members of Skull and Bones at Yale. Coincidence???
Jonathan Demme, director of the new "Manchurian," is quoted in the press materials as saying, "With the nation's eye focused on a presidential election this year, I couldn't think of a better time to address darker themes about the political process and the forces that try to undermine it."
Take that statement at face value: Election years are good times to promote the notion that the entire political process is a big freaking lie.
The filmmakers have even created a Web site, manchurianglobal.com, filled with bland press releases about the company's experiments and its agenda. A fictitious CEO is quoted as saying, "Creating one world under skilled management was the dream of Alexander the Great. Let's follow him."
The knowledge that there's an enemy, that there are bad guys out there, is the anchor in our lives. To be an American today is to live in the middle of a mind control experiment. If you hear a candidate say, "I'd like to plant a thought in your mind," you'd better run for your life.