June 10, 2023 at 4:14 am

The Manchurian Candidate (2004)

The Manchurian Candidate (2004)
Director: Jonathan Demme
Writers: Daniel Pyne (screenplay), Dean Georgaris (screenplay), George Axelrod (1962 screenplay), Richard Condon (novel)
Stars: Denzel Washington, Liev Schreiber, Meryl Streep


Transformations in the Mythic Construct of the Hero:

The Manchurian Candidate from 1964 to 2004.

(Published in Spring 73, Cinema and Psyche, 2005)


Recasting The Manchurian Candidate, 1962, into a Gulf War context revivifies our terror of mechanized mind control with twenty-first century state of the art brain implants – but it also revamps Freud’s Oedipal complex and C.G. Jung’s negative mother complex with a heart over mind message. ‘Mother’ has long been associated with emotional memory and it is no secret that a man’s destiny depends on the peace he makes with both. But to believe mother love holds a dark underbelly of deceit and danger more deadly than a foreign enemy is old mythology brewed in a patriarchal pot. The Manchurian Candidate, 2004, puts forward a contra-patriarchal image of masculinity in the role of hero, challenging the negative mother complex itself as a misbegotten source of power.

Perhaps catching a private corporation in the act of nearly taking over the American government for its own greedy purposes in the 2004 reprise of The Manchurian Candidate would be reflection enough of a basic twenty-first century fear of capitalistic control. But the 2004 film goes beyond grandiose corporate machinations to where the real control of the future lies. In the psyche. The film’s close examination of the fight for individual freedom to think, to care about others and to question any system attempting to control people’s minds proves to be about much more than money. If memory can be erased, laid down artificially and made to ‘feel’ as real as the truth, any dark deed is possible. If it can’t, what could possibly prevent it? What might protect truth? Where might hope reside?

Mind control is not new to the movies, not new to life. But The Manchurian Candidate, 2004, presents a surprising postulate for retaining humanity in a society increasingly dominated by technology you don’t want to miss. Unlike the original in 1962, no outside re-programmer need be brought in! There is an antidote lying within the hearts of men, creating a capability to fight back against brainwashing and strong enough to restore healthy mental functioning. It may stay dormant during indoctrinations but ultimately it’s capable of resisting the invasive technology of artificial encoding. To release the antidote, however, some fear-based patriarchal mythology about the emotional susceptibility of a man to his mother’s selfish motives must be given up.

Historically, societies dominated by patriarchy have feared the relationship between mother and son, developing a mythology that casts it in a dark light, denigrating mother love. The standard analytic interpretation of Oedipus is that mother-son love has a dangerous underbelly. A son enamored of his mother leads him to kill his father and claim his mother for his own. A mother, enamored of her son, colludes in the son’s emotional dependence and keeps him under her control against the father, in service to her own purposes. This conspiratorial mythology not only distrusts and distorts the love between mother and son from early on in a boy’s life, it provides justification for a father’s authoritarian control. In effect, a father’s egoistic fears of losing power to his son are blamed on reasons buried in the unconscious. Such Oedipal interpretations ignore the fact – especially in ancient times – that a woman’s well-being and desire to better herself as well as her safety was dependent upon her men. In a society dominated by patriarchy, a woman does well to align herself well with powerful men – including her sons.

Sadly, C.G. Jung gave this patriarchal distortion of mother-son love a name that stuck; he identified it as a ‘negative mother complex’ inherently innate to the human psyche and, like Freud, slid past cultural influences. He says, “On the negative side, the mother archetype may connote what devours, seduces, and poisons; it is terrifying and inescapable like fate (underlining mine). I have expressed the ambivalence of [maternal attributes] in the phrase ‘the loving and terrible mother’.” Those words, ‘inescapable like fate’ places Jung in a framework before women had a presence of their own in the public world and femininity was defined by men, seen through their eyes and bound by their expectations. It also dates him in a world before men of radically different ethnicity, financial means and class were thrown into wars where they would become close buddies, arousing an unprecedented felt connection between men (and women) of wide ranging diversity across the boundaries of nations and continents. It dates him before an instant invisible net of cyberspace existed around the globe, creating a web of international access, intrigue and knowledge far more powerful than radio or TV. These modern times challenge the soul of mankind to preserve a capacity for human caring against greater odds than have ever been known before. And The Manchurian Candidate, 2004, lends an image to how this may come about.

In both versions of The Manchurian Candidate, the mother’s capacity to manipulate her son’s love is co-opted by patriarchal entities – in the first by a foreign country and in the second by an international corporation. The mother yields to patriarchal forces – first without, and then with her knowledge. Given patriarchal reasoning, the use of the mother’s ill-gotten power over her son for the father’s goals is fair game. Patriarchal desire for control of the emotionally charged relationship between a mother and her son drives the drama in both films. In the 1962 version, The Manchurian Candidate turned a mother’s influence over her beloved son into a hypnotic spell of compliance that could be triggered by a playing card, the red queen. She rendered her son an assassin to kill the nominated presidential candidate of the United States, elevating her husband to presidential pawn for a foreign power. The Manchurian Candidate, 2004, turns the son of an ambitious female senator into a war hero. Military brainwashing lays the ground for mother and son to become a presidential combo of shills in service to corporate greed. The son comes home from war programmed to fall victim to his mother’s determination to make him president as well as to kill on command from her – or a mysterious ‘them’. In the revamped version, a mother powerful enough to manipulate an entire political campaign fronts a corporate takeover of the U.S. government. And a brainwashing system strong enough to dupe a complete squad, including its Commander, spins the son into a cultural war hero in front of an entire world.

The 2004 mother differs from 1962 when a mother’s influence on her weak child-man son elevates her weak husband to power, not knowing that she’s selling out her son to get in solid with the foreign power that takes over. In the second, a mother’s political ambition lifts her techno-implanted son’s path of societal entitlement toward the presidency, promoting them as a dynamic duo and allowing them to work as partners for worldwide corporate greed. The central change in role of the son over a span of forty years, 1962 to 2004, from the end of one generation to the beginning of another, is from presidential assassin to presidential partner, from deadly sycophant to deadly consort to a mother who knowingly sells out her son to gain power in society. In both films, the mother-son relationship gets co-opted for the evil purposes of patriarchal greed. In The Manchurian Candidate 1962, the personal mother acts separate and alone from her son. In 2004, she acts within the archetypal relationship and the negative mother-son complex itself becomes the source of danger and destruction. And, the construct of the complex, symbolically speaking, gets to become the rightful target for a deadly bullet. The Manchurian Candidate, 2004, like a cultural dream, seems to reflect a shift in mythology.

In both films, the son’s older Commander plays the hero, uncovering the scheme of mind control. However, in the first version, the Commander (Frank Sinatra) single-handedly breaks the code of control triggered by the red queen of hearts (with its obvious mother symbolism) and freeing the son from his mother’s clutches. In the second, the Commander (Denzel Washington) appears preoccupied with images of a recurring nightmare that have haunted him since the war. He’s in a low-level public relations position, giving speeches for the army to Boy Scout troops and living in his apartment as if contained in a cell. No friends, no social life, no change in routine. Years pass. He believes his nightmares contain a key to a confusing web of lies being spun around him by the military. But the meaning of his nightmare seems impenetrable until a soldier from his squad shows up at a talk he’s giving and shows him a sheaf of papers, revealing that he too continuously dreams the same nightmare. The soldier’s scrawls are the same images that come in the night to the Commander. Spurred by the possibility that his nightmare represents the remnants of a shared rather than private trauma of war, the Commander’s ruminative obsession turns into a search for truth. He sees one of his previous soldiers on TV, running for president and wonders if he too is having these nightmares. Eventually, meetings with fellow soldiers set off flashback memories to a week during the war when the whole squad was secreted away for a sci-fi medically inspired military indoctrination. He’s part of a group.

As the story progresses, The Manchurian Candidate, 2004, heads into less traditional mythological territory of the hero than presented in The Manchurian Candidate, 1962. The men’s collective memory, in effect, kept a reality intact on an unconscious level that couldn’t be erased by artificial mind control. An instinctive emotional bond felt between ordinary men, under the worst of circumstances, proved strong enough to counteract the machinations of evil men. Men who draw upon a felt connection with one another prevent the misuse of love between mother and son for dark purposes. They are stronger, not weaker, for believing in a feeling of caring for one another that won’t be pushed aside by aspersions cast against their manhood by the military. The second film breaks away from the archetype of a singular hero on his own, standing alone and on his own. 2004 characterizes the Commander as a hero woven into a bonded identification with the men who served with him. He’s a man embedded in an identity of camaraderie, one who’s an integral part of a group and prompted to action by empathy. And he connects to other men through a dream – not through logic or sport. When this Commander discovers that his nightmare is being dreamt by others in his squad, his personal quest for the truth begins. He’s frightened, believing that the dream signifies something major being covered up. And little does he know.

Both versions of The Manchurian Candidate exploit the concept of a psychoanalytically based ‘negative mother complex’ to intensify the meaning of “Enemy”, as if war were less dangerous than a man’s relationship with his mother! When an outside enemy with weapons of mass destruction is construed as less dangerous than one developed in our own heads, it’s time to examine the truth of what’s inherent and what’s learned. The film assumes audiences will infer the patriarchal origin of ‘negative mother complex’ as purely innate. The use of an innate maternal trigger for a technological brain implant lends it greater evil, implying a cold dispassion for mankind laid deeply – inevitably – in a son’s psyche, not simply his brain. The complex gets put conveniently in service to an ideal of ultimate patriarchal dominance, influencing a mother to “devour” her own son to further a private corporation’s greed, power and control. This is a good moment to remember that a complex is not a person, not a real – living and breathing – mother. It is made up of emotional memories distilled into our most intimate habits of feeling to which we cling for survival. We will resist giving up what we require in love, how we style our bodies, what we feel to be a homecoming, the fears to which we have become accustomed. This is all a mother memory ruling a man’s life, a continuity of patterns we have lived with for so long that we become them. The personal mother is not the archetype. The archetype lives, influenced and shaped by cultural circumstance.

Both films make it clear: the mother’s need for power in a male dominated society drives her willingness to use her son as a pawn in a much larger game. What might be overlooked, however, is that a son taken over by a mother’s scheme to succeed in a man’s world can also be used to drive a young man into an ambition not his own, align him with a greed not his own and deprive him of freedom of choice – keeping him neatly in the service of a commercially driven patriarchy. For a young man to break away and think clearly, he must debunk the whole notion of the devouring mother as an inevitable underbelly of intimacy between a mother-son. A son’s freedom to grow up, mature and develop as a man independent of patriarchal programming remains in jeopardy as long as the underpinnings of the ‘negative mother complex’ go unrecognized for what they are — induced by society.

How to rid one’s psyche and culture of the control by a ‘negative mother complex’ is where the two films depart.

In The Manchurian Candidate, 1962, the cure for brainwashing lies in a superior intelligence – still military, male and patriarchal in origin – that breaks the code binding son to mother. And the death of the mother. The resolution of the first version requires only the son’s riddance of the physical mother – and the idiot stepfather. In the 1962 film, the son breaks away from the spell of the Red Queen at the end by killing his scheming, incestuous mother and her puppet husband (his stepfather) instead of the programmed target, the next president of the United States. That old mythology required revenge, an adolescent, Oedipal anger rising up in a cold heat to slice the umbilical cord and free not only himself but also his country from all mothers who would bargain their sons’ souls to secure their own place with a patriarch. That son, played by Laurence Harvey as a whining child-man, conveyed the image of mother as the instigator of infantilization in her son. A mythology of heroes who broke away from the mother – symbolically killing her as his only way to free himself – idealized men who stood alone and relied upon individual acts of heroism to prevail.

In The Manchurian Candidate, 2004, the cure lies dormant in a man’s basic make-up — in his natural ability to form emotional, empathic connections with the man next to him. The antidote to brainwashing begins in a feeling of camaraderie aroused between soldiers who fought together day in, day out in a war. Together, they form a multi-faceted chorus not so easily silenced as a single voice. This grand, captivating portrayal of a heroic bond of empathy between men offers an alternative to the mythology of Freud’s famed Oedipal complex and Jung’s monomythic hero, the exceptional man symbolized by Odysseus. Alfred Adler, the third originator of psychoanalysis along with Freud and Jung, considered the ‘feeling of intimate belonging to the full spectrum of humanity’ to be a dominant motive of life, as basic as Freud’s sexual drive or Jung’s urge toward meaning. The twenty-first century may be Adler’s turn to shine. ‘Intimate belonging’ urges men to connect emotionally in The Manchurian Candidate, 2004, forming an immunity to a masterful scheme to invade the human psyche with actual mechanical implants.

Then, as illuminated in the film’s stunningly symbolic ending, a man’s transformation from shill to free spirit lies in a riddance of the whole concept of a negative mother complex, a full death of the incestuous complex superimposed on the mother-son relationship, planned and directed by a son empowered by his found feeling for other men. The implication? Possibly that young men who know a different truth about their emotional natures can rid the culture of the negative mother complex, identified for the patriarchal concoction it is. The Manchurian Candidate, 2004, dramatizes – as the theatrical dramas of ancient Greek reflected fresh and timely cultural sentiment – an alternative base of emotional strength for men and a timely answer to an old problem of competition between fathers and sons.

In 1962, The Manchurian Candidate begins with a scene in a bar, a rowdy sexualized interaction between soldiers and foreign women. An uptight Captain enters, putting a damper on the fun with a stern call for his men to report for duty. By contrast, The Manchurian Candidate, 2004, opens with a group of young soldiers sitting in the back of a humvee, playing cards and laughing shoulder-to-shoulder while Kuwaiti oil fields burn in the background. They’re strangers thrown together in a strange country by the Gulf War in 1991, harking not only from different parts of the United States but also from different ethnic backgrounds. Here they are. Friends, like alloys forged into steel under fire, doing what they can to lighten a dark night while waiting for the call that will put their lives on the line. The music on a boom box echoes ethnic diversity in songs from reggae to rock to rap. The camera pans their faces, bridging a dozen differences while the rhythms in the background blur their boundaries and many biases. Here, in a foreign land under fire, they’re all the same man, tense beneath the skin and scared, but comfortable enough to be friendly toward their Captain who, separated from them by rank and class, dampens their fun with his condescending, cold call-to-action attitude. One of the men jokes that the Captain needs a friend and a hug. Everyone laughs. Little do they know how right they are.

Captain Raymond Prentiss Shaw (Liev Schrieiber) stands apart from his men and his commanding officer, Major Bennett Ezekiel Marco (Denzel Washington). Shaw appears socially awkward and distracted by a private irritation. A few minutes after ordering his men into battle, he’s seen fulfilling the role of war hero. Ostensibly, he saves all but two of his men’s lives, earning the prestigious Congressional Medal of Honor. This sets the stage for his mother’s ambition. The second film veers from the original, propelling Shaw (rather than his boorish step-father) as the man of choice in his mother’s determination to project one of her own men onto a fast track through the U.S. Senate straight to a nomination for Vice President. His mother, Eleanor Prentiss (Meryl Streep) is a Senator with a reputation for getting her way. She single handedly engineers a small coup among her colleagues to make sure her son gets the nomination. In the professional hands of Meryl Streep, the image of Eleanor Prentiss rises to symbolic resonance of an archetype, conjuring up C.G. Jung’s negative mother complex with the artistry of a William Shakespeare creating Lady Macbeth. She will push her son to greatness, leaving blood on the carpet if she must.

Twelve years after the war, as Prentiss Shaw’s star is rising in the presidential race, retired Major Ben Marco continues to suffer from a recurrent nightmare from the Gulf War. Embedded in his psyche, disturbing images have resisted treatment by drugs, psychotherapy and time. He lives within his dream; his apartment and his choices are still identified with the strictures of war. He also finds himself tormented by a freakish repetition of obsessive behaviors that won’t let go, making him feel more robot than man. Another soldier from the Kuwait battle seeks Ben out to show him a notebook full of the identical insomniac dream images and writings. Marco wrestles with a growing internal pressure to dig up the root of his nightmare. He begins to contact and confront Shaw, insisting Shaw shares the nightmare from their days as soldiers together in Kuwait – insisting the dreams cannot be ignored.

Shaw can’t imagine he’s part of a nightmare even more disastrous than the love-hate relationship he experiences with his smothering, controlling mother. However, as actual events unfold, he realizes his mother not only has an uncanny control of him but also has – true to an old mythology – aligned herself with a power-mongering corporation determined to use him in a dastardly plan to take over U. S. government. Unable to lift herself to the political heights of grandeur enjoyed by her father, hindered as she is by being of the female gender, she uses her ‘motherly’ talents to secure her ambitions through her son. The Manchurian Candidate in 1962 redirected the assassin son’s aim at the last moment to kill his mother and his stepfather instead of the designated target, the next president, was a sufficient break in mind control programming to startle expectations at the time. It represented an act of freeing sons from the emotional torment and constraint of a suffocating mother complex. But it didn’t kill the real enemy; it didn’t kill the belief in the distortion of a mother-son relationship purported to exist within the collective psyche that binds a son pathologically to his mother. In that version, a son has only one choice — to rid himself and society of the mother as if it were she and not the distortion that was the problem.

The Ben Marco of the early film represented the conscious side of a man and helped the son who was a good man held captive by incestuous, crippling memories. The analytic Marco unveiled Shaw’s emotionally based mother complex. As a buddy – a friend dedicated to truth – he could step forward and compete with the mother, even break her grip. But the extension of a man’s friendship to another man was transitory, not transformative. Feelings made a man suspect of being feminine and, by faulty deduction, associated with weakness so Ben approached the problem intellectually, using mysticism to defeat hypnosis.

The mythology of heroes in 1962 had not yet begun to include hero as common man, an ensemble hero of everyday who wasn’t a man of destiny from an elite family. It’s worth noting the evolution that takes place in The Manchurian Candidate, 2004, where Alfred Adler’s concept of an legitimate, emotional but not sexualized sense of ‘intimate belonging’ between men shows up as an interesting, deep and powerfully connective tissue that can withstand the pressure of mind control and open a new door. It steps away from the legacy of an inevitable, inescapable aberrant mother complex by shifting away from the familiar hero’s journey as the only journey, the only source of heroism. Many are now walking the hero’s path, made an integral part of popular culture by Joseph Campbell’s book, Hero of a Thousand Faces and George Lucas’s epic franchise, Star Wars. That questions its elitist hold on the only way to prevail against evil. Men – and women – from all walks of life, levels of society and gender identifications evolve toward a consciousness that contributes to and insists upon good for mankind.

Taken as companion pieces, the old and new Manchurian Candidate films can be seen as a dramatization of differences between the old singular type of hero and a new type of hero whose identity is multiple, ordinary and coincidental with a team of men. His conflict is their conflict. He draws his strength from an invisible, instinctive and emotional bond with them – not an inanimate cosmos. His power comes not from some abstract, mystical place in outer space but from within his own feelings, manifested and held in place by a dream. A dream! This ineffable, imagined and felt bond existing between men proves more real and more central to their survival than a rule of law. When the lone man on the battlefield proves vulnerable, easily implanted and manipulated with state of the art triggers to kill, the heroic image of superstar loses its luster. The Manchurian Candidate, 2004, finds its tale of an attempted double invasion into a country and a man’s psyche defeated by an ethereal air of energetic, intense and empathic exchanges between men who believe more strongly in the truth of their own nightmares than the spin of outside authorities. Heroism emerges from the flimsy stuff of a collective dream to penetrate the conspiracy and unseat the enemy. And it engenders hope. It’s a vision of heroism based in a natural psychological resources, possessed by every baby born – feelings and dreams.

In the 2004 version of The Manchurian Candidate, a heroism synonymous with a bond felt between men offers an alternative to the single-minded heroism of one man. It opens up and ushers in new prospects for balancing good and evil in a technology driven world. The mythic and psychological message of this latest version of The Manchurian Candidate is different than the first, promoting a felt connection between men that can act as a strength as well as a guide to truth and new options when faced with artificial intelligence. It’s not enough to kill the wicked symbol of ‘mother’ to alter narrow-minded patriarchal goals. No, what must be shot straight through is the whole ‘negative mother’ complex.

The final act of the son in The Manchurian Candidate, 2004, represents a reckoning, a redemptive act that frees him, his commander, the men who fought with him – and the audience – to move on. He instigates the death of his fear-based, disabling enmeshment with his mother not by suicide, as if it were contained within him, or even homicide as if it were contained in his mother. He steps together with her, letting a single bullet from Marco kill them both simultaneously, demonstrating the clarity of his intent to do away with what exists between them. Symbolically, the pathological distortion of the dynamic between mother and son is eliminated by a new hero. The son’s insight makes possible the emergence of a new archetype of heroism, one that honors the veracity of a masculine bonding and awards all sons their rightful legacy of feelings. With the death of the distorted complex, the film suggests a fresh mythology can begin to rise in which men can identify masculinity with empathy as well as a healthy emotional bonding with each other – and their mothers. At the end of the new version, Ben Marco returns to the scene of the crime on a deserted isle where minds were warped and futures ruined. He slips a group photo of his men, along with a single Congressional Medal of Honor, into the sea. It’s a ritual of return, referencing the symbolism of reclamation and renewal. But it also signifies a transformation in the type of leadership that can now mean ‘hero’, one of a man belonging to a matrix and not a complex. The men with their medal return to the source of life on earth – an inclusive, elusive fluidity that sustains a natural flow between human beings and repeatedly withstands evil.

Patriarchal mythology, based upon and heavily vested with values supporting iron-fisted domination of one order of human beings over another, must yield its complexes. When the son, programmed as an assassin wakes up in The Manchurian Candidate, 2004, and discovers links of destruction in his own psyche reaching from personal mother to corporate father, he throws light into a cultural construct of developmental psychology in need of change. His self-instigated release from the artificially implanted nightmare of a twisted mother-son dynamic symbolically ‘kills’ the archetype that destroyed his chance to become an independent young man. The hopeful mythic thread of “Resonance, Return and Renewal” in The Manchurian Candidate, 2004, shows a way out. The film demonstrates a source of hope in dark times. Empathy forms an abiding bridge between men and liberates acts of independent thinking even when aggressive attempts are being made to program individual choice into oblivion.

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