Trump Movies: From The Manchurian Candidate With Love

By  · Published on December 13th, 2016

It’s easy to forget how much is going on in The Manchurian Candidate. There’s an unimaginably effective Soviet brainwashing program that works a lot like the hypnotist that got you to cluck like a chicken on stage at the county fair, but there’s also an assassination plot that’s a stepping stone to the larger plot of installing a Soviet-friendly president with emergency powers, Frank Sinatra having a bad acid trip, a cook who’s actually a North Korean operative who knows karate, and Angela Lansbury is evil.

And don’t forget the bloated fascist candidate who everyone thinks is a buffoon.

For years, John Frankenheimer’s paranoiac satire has been a rabid wolf sewn into a tight, seamless suit. It’s as bonkers as you’d imagine a movie where a woman’s Queen of Hearts costume (a thing?) triggers a Soviet sleeper agent into eloping with her, but it was always grounded either by the severity of its stakes, by the American Cold War psyche, or by both.

Now, through the Trumpian lens, The Manchurian Candidate’s plot (hewing pretty closely to Richard Condon’s novel of the same name) is not only absurdly cartoonish, but also unnecessarily complicated. Especially since it doesn’t end up working. That tight suit has finally burst at the seams.

Kidnap a platoon of soldiers? Brainwash them all to praise one as a hero? Brainwash him to follow orders to dress up as a priest and kill his stepdad’s running mate at Madison Square Garden after seeing a common playing card? Make Angela Lansbury evil?

That’s a crazy amount of chess moves to leave to chance when you can set up an internet cafe and wait for a thin-skinned billionaire to score the Republican nomination. When he does, you’ll have an apolitical vessel who doesn’t listen to intelligence briefings and can’t be bothered to care about standing diplomatic relations (because they either don’t make him money or stand in the way of him making money) ready to lend his open ears to your suggestions. Give him a few tips on silencing opposition press, compliment his single chin, and you’ll be toasting Stoli Red in no time.

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So here we are now, with a president-elect aided to ascendance by a meddling foreign power who we have, for half a century, feared would meddle with our power structures. With The Siberian Candidate.

American fear of infiltration by a nefarious outside force is nothing new. It’s the bread and butter for just about every Cold War thriller that imagined a terrible world where our pure borders were breached by a real-world enemy. The sheer number of these projects – mirroring street-level fears – almost amounts to propaganda. At the very least, you could see Joseph McCarthy dancing a jig when Invasion USA and The Thing From Another World landed on marquees everywhere.

With movies like Three Days of the Condor, Seven Days in May, and The Manchurian Candidate, labyrinthine plots and subterfuge are what you buy the popcorn for. The Russkies craft a 78-part plan to take over America, but they don’t count on the plucky (and handsome!) patriot who’s in the right place at the wrong time, vowing to get to the bottom of things and save the Republic. It’s usually – but doesn’t have to be – Robert Redford. In the case of The Manchurian Candidate, the heroic (and handsome!) buttinsky takes on an ironic edge because Sinatra’s Major Bennett Marco is driven to seek the dark truth specifically because of what the Soviet’s did to him.

It’s why you always read the side-effects label on the brainwashing pills you give your would-be assassins. As every member of the platoon uses the exact same phrase to praise secret sleeper cell Shaw – presaging the nauseating chorus of talking points on cable news – Marco is driven not to madness, but to action.

A year after The Manchurian Candidate hit theaters, James Bond returned with From Russia with Love, cashing in on the incipient Cold War craze and sticking it to Communism while swirling a weak martini. Watching the two back-to-back, Bond acts as a fun hour mirror that adds credibility to the artistry and nervous sweat of The Manchurian Candidate. You forget how insane the set up is because 1) it could have been wackier 2) it could have been presented way wackier and 3) someone could have had a poisoned toe spike.

The Russians hacking into our major political parties and releasing information from one in order to help Trump become president makes an assassination attempt seem quaint. The Manchurian Candidate remains potent, but its fever dream political brinkmanship has been outplayed by reality.

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Movie stuff at VanityFair, Thrillist, IndieWire, Film School Rejects, and The Broken Projector Podcast@brokenprojector | Writing short stories at Adventitious.