The Manchurian Candidate & The Village

This weekend I was off to Spokane to see the grandchildren AND to see “The Village,” the latest film from M. Night Shyamalan. Upon returning Sunday night, I rushed off to see the “The Manchurian Candidate” in preparation for an early Monday AM interview on my friend Mark Elfstrand’s show on WMBI in Chicago.

As you know I am concerned that we learn to become skilled at dual listening when we view films they are a window to our culture and an important storytelling venue in today’s society. Unfortunately, they are also “big business,” marketing driven vehicles in a superficial, shallow culture in which large egos cry out to be taken seriously, The recent flood of interest in film on the part of evangelicals seems to me too enamored with the medium than evaluative of message and medium. Dual listening requires listening to faith and culture and in the case of the “Manchurian Candidate, “dual listening means relating film to the culture that is producing it.

Jonathan Demme’s “Manchurian Candidate” is undisputedly politically motivated, both Meryl Streep and Demme have said as much. The original film was patriotic in its anti-communism; this one is cynical about US government, military and ties to big business. The bad guys are political conservatives and Streep has suggested she patterned her role variously on Peggy Noonan, Condi Rice and Dick Cheney. Streep recently asked, “During Shock and Awe I wondered which of the megaton bombs Jesus, our president’s personal savior, would have personally dropped on the sleeping families of Baghdad. I wondered, ‘Does Jesus understand collateral damage?” This screenplay has one good guy Senator warning the likely next VP of the US, “You are about to become the first privately owned and operated vice president of the United States.” Streep’s character sneers, “The assassin always dies, baby. It’s necessary for the national healing.” Her performance is brilliant, her politics transparent.

This is a free country and Hollywood can choose whatever films they like viewers just ought to know the motivation of the makers, and when NYT columnist Frank Rich writes that the movie is “more partisan” than “Fahrenheit 9/11,” that ought to be considered in evaluating the film. Denzell Washington, a fine actor and professing Christian seems taken back by the spin Demme and Streep are putting on the film and got in a debate with Streep about her Jesus comment.

In the case of the Manchurian Candidate dual listening reveals the bias of the film but also makes it clear why it fails as a film. The execution of the political bias comes across as propoganda not art. Ironically, there is a message here for Christians who want to make films, because this propograndish dynamic is ALSO what is wrong with so many “Christian” films, that hammer at the one note, are breathless to reveal the “real” meaning, and come across simplistically because they so want you to “get the point.”

On the “meaning in the message front,” if “Manchurian Candidate” suggests we can root out evil by exposing the bad guys in the military, politics and big business, Shyamalan’s “The Village” explores what happens when we assume the other guys are the problem and things would be better if we good guys withdrew and started over. In “The Village” an Amish-like group withdraws from society to preserve a peaceful way of life and discovers evil lurks wherever WE ARE! Shyamalan’s ponderous unfolding of a suspenseful tale is his trademark, but as many critics are noting, his shtick is getting a little predictable, though I think the issues raised by this one are interesting and important.

Watching both these films I was reminded of my favorite Alexander Solzhenitsyn quote, “If it were only so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”

Both these movies remind us that regardless of our politics, economic philosophy or religious and moral perspectives, evil resides in each human heart. Such a position requires a humility like that displayed by William Hurt’s character in “The Village,” but “Manchurian Candidate” is a good guy-bad guy caricature that does not ring true because it isn’t.

By the way–in case you are wondering? The grandchildren, Mia and Eli, were great–two thumbs up!!!

Yours for the pursuit of God in the company of friends, Dick Staub.

PS. And remember, “these are the best of times and the worst of times, but they are the only times we have.” (For Now).

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