The thematic heart of Jonathan Demme’s The Manchurian Candidate is revealed through opposing lines of dialogue spoken repeatedly by former Army platoon members Ben Marco (Denzel Washington) and Raymond Shaw (Liev Schreiber): respectively, “I have dreams”/“I don’t have dreams.” Consider the movie surrounding this verbal rhyme as a dream in itself, color-coated (and coded) as a red, white, and blue philosophical inquiry into a country where true progress is blocked by a variety of dichotomous oppositions (Black/White; Republican/Democrat; Civilian/Politician.) “I ain’t no senator’s son!” sings Wyclef Jean, covering Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Fortunate Son” over the film’s opening credits. The actors’ names wave like defiant American flags in the breeze and Demme disorients us by fading into a cramped interior space where a U.S. military squadron (led by Marco and Shaw) laughs and plays cards. This is a visual template for what follows.
Demme often begins a scene in tight, identifying individual faces and personalities in one of his trademark direct-eyeline close-ups before moving outward and sketching in the space they inhabit. The squadron’s card game is an obvious referent to the John Frankenheimer Manchurian Candidate, except here it is what it is—merely a game, not a means to manipulation (and note that the game played is not the original film’s isolationist solitaire). Moving outwards, Demme places the squadron within a blood-red digital rendering of the Kuwaiti oil fields, 1991. Questioning our war-torn past (a history the director constantly represents “like a movie”) Demme boldly suggests that we all have sanguine hands, a crimson-colored culpability that we must come to terms with at the risk of our own sanity.
The past is constantly being interrupted in The Manchurian Candidate, intruded on by a more pressing and paranoia-stricken present. The film’s opening flashback, which culminates in an ambush on Marco and Shaw’s platoon, abruptly flashes-forward on an aural disturbance: a question to Marco from a Boy Scout. Sound is the key interloper in this Manchurian Candidate. The steady hum of information, often emanating from crystal-clear, too-lifelike television images, effectively confuses the reality of every situation and action, inducing the mindful among us into a deceptive, yet comforting, white-noise trance (somewhere, Marshall McLuhan cackles.) A trance of sorts is what preys on Raymond Prentiss Shaw, a literal prisoner to his own name which, when spoken in a clear, specific order—last name, first name + last name, first name + middle name + last name—makes him an oblivious slave to corporate wills (here the shadowy conglomerate Manchurian Global.) This diabolic control switch provides a kind of masochistic amusement to Raymond’s mother, Senator Eleanor Prentiss Shaw (Meryl Streep), who uses it to further her own sinister, semi-incestuous agenda, a plot that, at one point, Raymond unconsciously acknowledges in pun: “I’m a Prentiss. I’m not a Shaw.”
Identity is the solitaire-like trigger of Demme’s Manchurian Candidate, a frightening update to Frankenheimer’s war-as-game scenario—except now the battle is for our very souls. Witness the film’s brilliant murder sequence where Raymond unwittingly drowns two characters beloved to him. Dressed to the nines in suit and tie, Raymond partially submerges his body as he approaches the first victim, a forced, half-hearted baptism that eradicates free will from the spiritual equation. Water imagery recurs throughout the film, suggesting the fluidity of memory and acting as cosmic balance to the tempestuous goings-on (the film’s ultimate goal is to see the sea.) What Raymond sees in this sequence is a torturous reflection: a modern-day Narcissus recognizes himself as a morally devoid shell of a man, his devastating mirror image shot back like a bullet through a lover’s dead gaze. The scene’s personalization of both killer and victims (a consistent Demme trope) only deepens the film’s sense of tragedy and, breathless from this portrayal of man’s mechanistic cruelty, we may be prompted to ask what lies beyond the pitiless mortal coil.
Keeping with his obsessions, Demme answers by making America a prime supporting character, juxtaposing its complexities against Marco and Shaw’s individual tragedies and their movie-long philosophical discourse. A sequence where Marco’s confidant Rosie (Kimberly Elise) disrupts an elementary school play about the Founding Fathers is a particular kind of triumph, a throwaway transition scene that still manages to contrast an idealized, semi-whitewashed past (as performed by a multicultural company) with the harsh realities of our seething, obscured history of sexism and racism. It’s to Demme’s credit that his trenchant social criticism is counterbalanced by an effusive love for his country; even with their scathing critiques his films acknowledge and strive for an image of America at its best, and the director rightly believes in a necessary struggle toward that goal’s achievement. To this end the film’s climax hinges on just such a struggle—Marco and Shaw’s verbal resolution of their “dreams” argument is only the first, tentative step. Now mindfully connected, their final solution centers on a silent exchange through the sight of a gun, a transcendent moment of right-thinking. Rewriting their own history in righteous blood, Marco and Shaw ironically inform the film’s ominous slogan “Secure Tomorrow Today,” giving this facile advertiser’s evocation of dreams a suddenly profound and lasting meaning.