Classic of the Week: “The Manchurian Candidate” (1962)

The Cold War’s over, but America’s still sick. The scare isn’t red, but the paranoia feels the same. A quick glance around the sociopolitical landscape should ensure that John Frankenheimer’s 1962 classic “The Manchurian Candidate” remains the preeminent political nightmare of a country on the verge of a serious panic attack.

Similar to America during the Cold War, America’s fear of foreign enemies permeates our news channels, a country continues to tear at the seams, and a demagogue of the McCarthy variety has tipped politics over into a freak show.

In the midst of this freak show, “The Manchurian Candidate’s” paranoid vision of communist takeovers, brainwashed assassins and right-wing lunatics looks perfectly reasonable. After all, that dazed look Chris Christie made behind Donald Trump a couple weeks ago confused us all, right? Would it be that much of a stretch to imagine that, say, North Korean scientists have turned Christie into a sleeper agent? It would help explain Christie’s reputation as a lame-duck Governor in New Jersey.

Late in the film, a political rival to Republican senator and McCarthy type John Iselin (James Gregory) tells Iselin’s wife and puppetmaster (an Oscar-nominated Angela Lansbury) that if her husband “were a paid soviet agent, he could not do more harm to this country than he is doing now.”

That sure sounds similar to what Hillary Clinton said about Trump back in December, calling the leading Republican Presidential candidate “ISIS’s best recruiter.”

Still, those parallels somehow feel too easy. Above all, “The Manchurian Candidate” maintains its anxiety-strewn relevance through the notion that American democracy is no longer politics as usual. Better than any film of its time, it captures the fear that nothing we see can be taken at face value, particularly the inflammatory rhetoric bursting from our TV screens on a daily basis.

In the clip above, Frankenheimer spins a satirical riff on the infamous 1954 Senate hearings between the US army and McCarthy, Mr Iselin parading a list of “card-carrying communists!” (he changes the exact number a few times). In a brilliant stroke, Frankenheimer shows in the foreground TV screens depicting what’s happening in the background, reflecting the way history has become televised, the real made surreal.

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