Jonathan Demme’s 2004 update of the classic film The Manchurian Candidate presents an extraordinary woman whose once-heroic desire for the good of her country drives her to commit unspeakable atrocities. Believing the ends justify the means, and that the good of the many outweighs the good of the few, she turns from a hero to a monster who is the exact kind of enemy to the American way of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness which she so earnestly opposes.
Senator Eleanor Shaw (Meryl Streep) sees herself as a hero, willing to do whatever it takes to make America a better place. She believes that America needs a strong leader who will guide the country and improve quality of life for all its citizens, that her idealistic son Raymond (Liev Schreiber) is just that man, and that the ends justify the means of getting him into that position. She aspires to be just like her father, John Prentiss, who she describes as a bold risk taker, not needing others’ approval but acting of his own accord, someone who “…never asked ‘Is this ok? Is this ok?’ He just did what needed to be done.”
Legendary actress Meryl Streep, who portrays Senator Shaw, agrees:
“[She is] bursting with intelligence, ambition, a clear idea of how to move the country forward, but she’s thwarted. . .I think she thinks she’s patriotic, deeply patriotic. She is someone who is a believer. It goes to the core of her being, and she is sure. There’s no neurosis about her. And that made her an interesting character for me because I play people who are sort of torn by contradictory emotions, and Ellie really isn’t. She’s a fundamentalist idealogue in the way that people maybe are forced to be in politics, because otherwise you’re perceived as weak.”
Eleanor Shaw is definitely not weak, nor could anyone think of her as such. She is strong and confident, unwilling to take no for an answer and unintimidated by even the most daunting of tasks--to get Raymond into the White House, first as the vice president, then as the Commander-in-Chief. She sees herself as a soldier on a crusade, her Holy Land is America and her God is John Prentiss. She wants the greatest good for her country and she thinks that is Raymond. But subconsciously, it’s not her son Raymond she wants in power, but her father. Through her mind-control, she has made Raymond as close an imitation as possible to her father, her hero, her God, and, by extension, herself .
However, there is another definition of hero. In the film Serenity, Zoe Washburn (Gina Torres) describes a hero as “someone who gets other people killed.” Eleanor Shaw doesn’t hesitate to kill. Working through mega-corporation Manchurian Global, she has an entire military platoon kidnapped, tortured, brainwashed and ultimately put under complete mind-control, to the point where each soldier would kill even his own squadmates if ordered to do so. She not only has military men killed, she orders the assassination of anyone--soldier, politician or ordinary citizen--who shows any indication that he or she has started to figure out what she is doing, which is maneuvering Raymond Shaw into position to become the new President of the United States.
She is convinced she’s doing the right thing for America, that her ends of the greater good justify her means of taking lives and breaking others, but she doesn’t truly know what she wants. She thinks she wants Raymond to lead America, but she doesn’t want the real Raymond with whose politics she disagrees, the man who wouldn’t even be in politics if he weren’t literally forced to do her commands, she wants her father to lead. John Prentiss is dead, so she does everything she can to turn her son into her father. When she looks at Raymond, she sees the man she has made him--an amalgam of her father and herself. Whatever is left of the person Raymond once was, she sees as an aberration, something to be kept under control and preferably erased permanently. She has taken a good man and replaced him with an abomination, and as clear as she can see the path to the White House, she has no understanding that the man she truly wants in the Oval Office is her father.
Eleanor’s relationship with Raymond is evidence of the depth to which she doesn’t understand her own motivations and desires. The movie heavily implies that she engages in non-consensual sexual relations with her son. He may not physically struggle or explicitly refuse her advances, but the brainwashing and mind-control she has inflicted on him has fundamentally compromised his self-awareness and free will to the point that he is unable to say no, and thus unable to give real consent.
She’s made her son into a monster. Due to the behaviour modifications that the Manchurian Global scientists performed on him, he has very little to no will of his own, which hardly makes him fit to lead the free world. She’s become a monster too, making her father into such an idol that she carries on an incestuous relationship with her brainwashed son who she has molded in his father’s image.
Eleanor Shaw might have benefited from talking to the antagonist, a man known only as the Operative (Chiwetel Eijofor), in the film Serenity. Like Senator Shaw, he believes the ends justify the means, but he understands that he, as the person carrying out the atrocities, is a monster, unfit to live in the world in whose name he commits his crimes. “Me and mine gotta lay down our lives so you can live in your perfect world?” asks a grieving man. The Operative replies: “I’m not going to live there. There’s no place for me there. I’m a monster. What I do is terrible but it must be done.” He understands that the monsters we make don’t go away once we get what we want, they stay around and ruin the future for which we strive so hard.
Streep, Meryl. Interviewed by Ethan Aames. “Interview: Meryl Streep on The Manchurian Candidate.” Cinecon.com Cinema Confidential. 28 August 2004. Web.
The Manchurian Candidate. Dir. Jonathan Demme. Paramount, 2004. DVD.
Serenity. Dir. Joss Whedon. Universal Pictures, 2005. DVD.