Perhaps the best-filmed depiction of the adage that absolute power corrupts absolutely, John Frankenheimer’s The Manchurian Candidate is exactly what the above poster promises. The first few minutes show a brief glimpse into the Korean War that served as the beginning of a brain-washing process that in specificity has no basis in reality but the politics and corruption behind this fantastic process are too real to not disturb and frighten. Years after his service in the war, Major Bennett Marco (Frank Sinatra) testifies in behalf of his own sanity to keep his military position. He hears himself robotically, uncontrollably utter the words “Raymond Shaw is the kindest, bravest, warmest, most wonderful human being I have ever known.” The revelation of who Raymond Shaw is that unfolds throughout the rest of the movie is definitely like nothing else we’ve ever seen (including the ridiculous 2004 remake).
We hear other soldiers involved in the Korea incident that opens the film utter this same statement about Raymond Shaw several times throughout the film. When Major Marco says it, however, he immediately catches himself and explains how false the statement is, how he doesn’t understand why he is compelled to say it whenever Raymond’s name comes up. His superiors of course don’t understand either and try to explain it away as Major Marco’s shell-shock. But the audience knows this isn’t the case.
Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey), while certainly not the kindest, bravest, warmest, and most wonderful human being, is also not the villain of the story. He is a victim just like those who served along side him in Korea. All of the brainwashing we see is a conspiracy to build the perfect assassin. Raymond is the person chosen and programmed to become that assassin. He had no choice or knowledge in that decision. It was all done for political gain.
Raymond’s stepfather, John Iselin (James Gregory), is a senator likely to become a Vice Presidential candidate, yet his political aspirations are not particularly high. He’s an idiot, completely incompetent in his role as a senator, only able to gain the favor he has because of the conspiracy that makes him appear capable. He also is a victim. His wife (Angela Lansbury), we learn fairly early on, is the central figure in charge of the conspiracy. She is the one who wants the perfect assassin programmed for her. She’s the intelligence behind her husband’s politics and the hopes for the White House are her own. She stops at nothing, including the endangerment of her own son, to reach that absolute power she craves.
Angela Lansbury gives one of the greatest acting performances in film history. Every second she is in this film, she is riveting and terrifying. She is a reminder of the darkest side of humanity that is very real (even if the details of the conspiracy are not realistic). She is a reminder of the dark forces of greed, power lust, and narcissism behind political scandals and all abuses of power. This is not a movie where good triumphs over evil. It may not be a movie we enjoy watching (though it is a very exciting thriller, and its screenplay is filled with a scathing sense of humor that inspires more winces than laughs, yet it is still humor), but it is an extremely important movie to recognize the relationship between character and leadership, something very quickly disregarded with the 2016 U.S. presidential race. While I do not suggest watching this movie to look for reasons to further suspect our President-elect (We don’t need any more reasons for that than he has already given us during his campaign), I do suggest it to remind us of our values as Americans and to make sure that we stand up for those values rather than giving into blind acceptance of what a person with great power says. If we are not willing to do this, we become vulnerable to be captured by the subtle ways that such people with too much power use to gain control over others. This is a very real type of brainwashing that the movie alludes to while showing its unrealistic type. It is what makes The Manchurian Candidate a significant, confrontational, and powerful film.
“Stumble” alert: The Manchurian Candidate is a very dark and disturbing movie. It is best to watch at a time when not already full of anxiety, anger, or other strong emotions. Watching it while in a healthy mental state helps toward the self-evaluation I talked about in the last paragraph. Watching it in a lesser healthy state could encourage an extension of that state beyond what is necessary. The film includes a few scenes of violence, but none are graphic. There is also a reference to incest that is intense and terrifying, but nothing sexual shown on screen.