Manchurian mating run

by Yule Heibel on March 20, 2005

We rented the 2004 Manchurian Candidate remake of the 1962 original this weekend. IMDb‘s reviewers give it barely 7 stars out of 10, and since I don’t often like remakes myself I was sceptical. But this one is very good: it raises all the usual fun paranoid conspiracy issues, along with technology issues, while the psychosexual pathologies it elaborates are worthy of classic tragedy.

First, though, the technology: What immediately struck me was the reliance in this movie on a mechanical “brainwashing” (or actually, pre-programming), involving mechanical drills and insertions reminiscent of medieval medicine. Considering the awesome and awful advances coming online in biochemical engineering and modification, that aspect of the film’s vision already seems quaint. Selectively erase “bad” memories? We’re workin’ on it, bud! From there, why not create killers by “muting” ethical or moral concerns? Can do, can do! But will we do it with hardware drills and electronic probes inserted either cranially or subcutaneously? No way, that would be like using leeches to cure disease. Surely proteomics research eventually will allow us to inject a few modified protein triggers that engineer the desired modification much better than those clumsy mechanicals dreamed up by novelists and Hollywood.

Then there’s the sexual psychodrama: Meryl Streep is amazing in this film. I don’t usually like “bad mother” characters, and Streep isn’t exactly my favourite actress, but she pulls it off so well, it’s a lesson and a treat to watch. When we first meet her, she comes across as ambitious, compulsively obsessed with politics and success, but likeable if you’re the kind of person who likes Hilary Clinton (I am). She says all the right things, she sounds so reasonable, she seems to make sense, and until things start going over the top, you might be strung along by her lines. As the film progresses, however, you sense that her ambitions for her son hint at extremism and taboo, although chances are, you’re still objecting on the old grounds of “interfering overbearing mother.” But Streep’s character has much more up her sleeve. When she starts to talk about how no one aside from her knows the “true” Raymond (her son), how no one but her can see the real him (and that one has to see him exactly as she sees him to see the “real” man), you start to get the heeby-jeebies: how dare anyone colonise the soul of another in such a way? What is all this crap about seeing the “real” or “true” person anyway, as though the speaker were a butterfly collector, forever pinning the beautiful dead specimen to a board? Streep brings a depth and conviction to what’s essentially a pulp fiction role by making her obsession horribly timeless. While her collusion in her son’s physical brainwashing is the most obvious “smoking gun” revealing her depravity, it’s her overbearing banter with him, which culminates at one point in fluttery kisses threatening to morph into a smoochy, all-consuming kiss, that reveals the sexual agenda behind her plan to turn the son into what both the father and the husband couldn’t be. The desire to create a puppet who will execute her political will is just the daily grist for this manipulative mother character, and it’s the stuff of “bad mom” films everywhere. It’s what Streep reveals in her own shocked, arrested face during the smooching moment that makes the audience reflect on why a mother should build a son into an idealised man. Political or social desire reveals itself to Streep’s character (and to us, through Streep’s acting skill) as sexual desire. Not since La Luna, where Jill Clayburgh revealed that particular obsession, have I seen an actress get the point across as piercingly — and remember that Clayburgh had almost the entire movie to elaborate, while Streep has just this one moment to raise the stakes.

Good god, thank heavens Hilary has a daughter — but maybe that’s why the rabid Clinton-baiters and tabloid presses catering to their dullwitted minions delight in suggesting that Hilary must be a lesbian.

As for the yummy Denzel Washington, his Ben Marco is brilliant. But for my money, Streep is the secret star here.


melanie March 21, 2005 at 4:49 am

The thing that got me about this remake was the notion that Hilary (oops! sorry Streep) could not run for President herself. In this day and age that just doesn’t ring true – though of course it was true when the book was written.

In terms of the psychological politics you describe, I see it as just part of the general trend of misogyny of our times, and perhaps deliberately targeted at the real Hilary?

Yule Heibel March 23, 2005 at 1:09 am

I missed that bit re. the Hilary-clone senator not being able to run for president herself! (I was only paying half-attention for the first quarter or third…) It’s a good thing that the senator can now run for office (power) on her terms, not a surrogate’s.

The parallels to someone just like Hilary were striking, although I think there are a number of other female politicians this character could be modeled on — Elizabeth Dole comes to mind, for example — so I’m not sure it’s a partisan attack against Democrats. It’s more likely to be, as you suggest, an attack (by men) against women in power. At the same time, if you’ve ever come across the kind of dynamic that’s described in an over-the-top kind of way by this film, you also can’t say it’s a total fabrication. I don’t know what it is, but I’ve met more than a few mothers who are absolutely insane when it comes to their sons. Zero objectivity, zero ability to step back and let go, zero ability to let the kid go his own sexual way or to let the kid make mistakes or even to let the kid be a kid. Obsessional focus on the son, as though he (and only he) were the only good human being, and as though she (the mother) were the only person capable of truly seeing (and knowing) him, the son. Unfortunately I haven’t met up with this in the guise of presidential candidates (only as ordinary garden-variety Johnnies, alas), because if one could see this play out on such a grand scale, it might actually be interesting. But when you see the whole force of the obsession focussed on pretty ordinary kids, …well, you feel sorry for the kids, and you wonder about the depths of neurosis on the part of the moms. Having said that there’s no reason not to understand why some individual sons must surely hate their individual mothers, there’s no reason to excuse misogyny, which prejudges not individuals but an entire gender, and which gives a template for hatred to people who might otherwise have been able to think for themselves (maybe).

Well, Streep at any rate managed to bring some real depth to a character who could have been straight cardboard, and I found it very interesting to watch.

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