Today we’re browsing through the case files of MK ULTRA, or at the very least taking a look at two very contrasting films based around brainwashing, with Joe Wright’s 2011 outing Hanna and John Frankenheimer’s 1962 classic, The Manchurian Candidate.

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If a director’s career path were to be formulated as some kind of geometric series, Joe Wright’s would be unsolvable. The leap from straight period piece Pride & Prejudice to stoic period drama Atonement to stoic drama The Soloist has some sort of obvious arc to it, but the neatness of the graph is rather ruined by 2011’s Hanna, which is a balls-out mental, Bourne Identity meets Crank fever dream. Yet perhaps I get ahead of myself.

We’re introduced to Erik Heller (Eric Bana) out in the isolated snowy wilderness, raising his daughter Hanna (Saoirse “Sursha” Ronan) in the usual home-school topics of hunting, hand to hand combat, marksmanship, y’know, all the usual activities for a growing teenager. It’s clear from the off that something is unusual about this situation – after all, there’s normally little need for teenagers to memorise so detailed a cover identity unless perhaps they’re attempting to bamboozle an off-licence assistant.

It transpires that the Hellers escaped to the wilds after CIA bigwig Marissa Weigler (Cate Blanchett) ordered their deaths, successfully in the case of Hanna’s mother. With Hanna now having grown and proven to be sufficiently levelled in the bad-ass skill categories, Eric gives a rather unusual gift to Hanna – a transponder that will reveal their location to those who have been looking for them, which will kick off their frankly poorly detailed plan to get a measure of revenge for Hanna’s mother and see Marissa pay. Erik heads off on the run, and Hanna waits to meet the capture squad.

It’s pretty hard to say if that goes according to their plan – I rather assume not, as after Hanna’s taken to a CIA black site for interrogation, which proves fatal fro most of that base’s staff and the poor chick pretending to be Marissa, Hanna makes good her escape only to have Marissa sic the uniquely tailored assassin Isaacs (Tom Hollander) and his skinhead henchmen on Hanna’s trail.

This leads to a fairly unique trail of violence across Europe, with Isaacs being rather unpleasant to the trail of people who show kindness to Hanna on her trek to Germany at a pre-arranged meeting point with Erik, where all these moving parts meet in a rather final way for most of them. This potted recap rather minimises the dizzying array of locations and set-pieces that it takes to get there, all thrown at you at a frenetic pace.

Almost too frenetic for its own good, in fact. I dimly really watching this on release and being rather overwhelmed by it all, and I think our general reaction was somewhere in the region of “meh”. I’m happy to say that I enjoyed this a great deal more on second viewing, perhaps because I was pre-warned as to quite how quirky, and in many places, outright silly it is.

There’s still some moments where the dramatic elements are a little tough to reconcile with the high concept nature of both the action sequences and the revelations about Hanna’s origins, which I’m sure surprises no one to find out there’s something unusual about. It’s not so much the actors’ fault – Bana and Ronan have as believable a relationship and reactions as you could expect them to have, considering, but the drama does get undercut by the over-arching daftness of the plot, and on occasions I’m left wishing they’d played that rather less straight.

But, as alluded to earlier, we already have that film, and it’s Crank and Crank 2: High Voltage. Visually, at least, it’s not a million miles away from those two masterpieces of stupidity, which I intend as a high compliment, and Hanna‘s marginally more grounded action scenes are just as enjoyable as they waltz though some arresting and unique locations.

Special mention must also be made of the Chemical Brother’s pounding soundtrack, which is very well integrated into the movie and provides a real driving heartbeat for many essential sequences in the film, edited together very well with the action indeed. Actually, on this second viewing the only thing that annoyed me this time around was Blanchett’s rather broad Southern accent which bordered on parody.

A small point, and not significant in the grand scheme of things. I’m glad I revisited this, as I’m much happier recommending it this time around than I was on first view.

<a name=”manch> The Manchurian Candidate

Korea, 1952. A platoon of US soldiers in a brothel is given the hurry-up by their universally beloathed sergeant, Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey). Grumbling at their fun being spoiled, it seems again, by this joyless and charmless martinet, the platoon set out on patrol.

A few days later and the platoon, who had been reported missing, reappear, bearing stories of the heroism and derring-do of Shaw, citations for his bravery from the platoon commander, Captain Bennett Marco, and a description from every surviving member of Raymond Shaw as “the kindest, bravest, warmest, most wonderful human being I’ve ever known in my life.”

Such irreconcilable statements can be explained, though, by the fact that the platoon were, in fact, kidnapped by the Chinese while on their patrol, and flown to Manchuria, where they were brainwashed and programmed by Chinese and Soviet experts. We are treated to surreal scenes of the soldiers believing that they are attending a presentation of a Woman’s Institute-like society, though rather than prim and proper ladies, the attendees are all bigwigs from China and the USSR. As the soldiers, brainwashed to see Shaw as their saviour so that he can return the hero and be awarded the Congressional Medal of Honour, calmly sit and listen, Shaw is instructed to murder two of his squadmates, which he does calmly and blithely.

Controlled by a deck of cards and, in particular, the queen of diamonds, the unaware and unassuming assassin Raymond returns to the US, where after a period of two years he is tested to ensure that his mechanisms are still intact, before being turned over to his US handler who, it turns out, just happens to be his overbearing, domineering and sinister mother.

The plan is that Raymond will be used to assassinate the presidential nominee at a party convention, leading to the vice-presidential nominee, and Raymond’s stepfather, “rallying a nation of viewers to hysteria, to sweep us up into the White House with powers that will make martial law seem like anarchy”.

That is, unless, Frank Sinatra’s Captain Marco can get to the bottom of the terrible dreams that haunt him every night, and stop Shaw bringing about the election of Senator Iselin, the Manchurian candidate (it’s amusing that “Manchurian Candidate” became a byword for “brainwashed sleeper”, despite the fact that the sleeper facilitates the candidate, but is not the candidate himself, but I digress.)

It’s a throughly entertaining conspiracy thriller, as well as a biting satire (and often damn funny with it) on both the McCarthy-esque right wing and the holier-than-thou liberal left, and despite being very much of its time, set just after the end of McCarthyism, and smack-bang in the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis, it is still deeply relevant today. With the rhetoric of the likes of Donald Trump it still has relevance, but I won’t say “particularly now” because people have been noting that it “rings true today” for at least the last 30 years.

I have a few grumbles with it, but they’re really minor, and are magnified simply due to familiarity with the the film. For example, while the sinister forces of Communism wait two whole years before doing anything with Sergeant Shaw, the two romances of the film are bizarrely accelerated. Janet Leigh’s Eugenie goes from meeting the stranger Bennett Marco on the train, to ending things with her fiance to move in with Marco in literally the space of one afternoon, while Raymond goes from reuniting with his shabbily-treated and cruelly despatched old flame to becoming a newly wed in an evening.

And that’s more or less it for, except for maybe Ol’ Blue Eyes. No great actor Sinatra, but this film is far and away his best performance. (Alas that Sinatra really isn’t a dramatic natural, though – for example, the scene where Raymond tells Marco about the content of their fellow squadmate’s dream sees Sinatra walk calmly across to Laurence Harvey, before then roughly grabbing Harvey’s arm and asking him, wild-eyed, how he knows that. It’s painfully stilted.)

Laurence Harvey is really interesting. His manner in this film is cold, awkward, perhaps a little wooden. It could be easily mistaken for bad acting, but, while I’m really not familiar with Harvey’s other roles, I really think not – it’s a representation of Shaw’s insular nature, his uncomfortableness with the world, his inability to fit in in a world he neither understands nor belongs in. This interpretation is given credence by the way he transforms and lights up when is with, or even talks about, Jocelyn. Viewed like this it is, in fact, a fine performance, well-gauged, and also makes Shaw a rather pitiable character, rather than the ogre you might think him to be.

While I don’t know how it seemed then, for people of our generation one of the strangest things is seeing Angela Lansbury, Mrs Potts from Beauty and the Beast, sweet, mystery-solving Cabot Cove writer and amateur sleuth Jessica Fletcher, as the big bad. As Raymond’s scheming, evil, amoral mother she is so far removed from any other role I was accustomed to seeing her in that it was a real shocker the first time I saw this. But she’s great, because she is EVIL. So evil you would say that she is ay-vil, like the fru-ets of the day-vil. Evil.

James Gregory as Senator Iselin is also great, his bumbling performance in committee, his inability to remember the exact number of communists he has absolute proof of the existence of in the Department of Defence, his role as the hen-pecked husband, and the fact he gets to deliver the best joke in the film, when he looks at a bottle of Heinz ketchup and then tells the world that the absolutely definitive number of communists he has proof of is 57. Though perhaps the one thing that I would change is that I wouldn’t have Iselin in on the conspiracy – he seems too stupid to pull it off, better that he just remained the patsy, and Evil Jessica Fletcher the power behind the throne.

But do yourself a favour if you haven’t seen this: Why don’t you pass the time by playing a little solitaire, and watching The Manchurian Candidate. That’s an order, soldier.


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