Paranoiacs And Their Enemies

In a lengthy, thoughtful commentary on my "paranoid style" essay, Noah Millman takes issue with my remarks about the remake of The Manchurian Candidate, and specifically my contention that a better remake would have featured "a Cheney-like politician being manipulated by an al-Qaeda sleeper cell." He writes:

Well, that would have been an obvious way to update it . . . except that if there were (or are) al-Qaeda sleeper cells, nobody would believe that they were capable of manipulating the Vice President. I mean, try to spin the scenario ... The fact that Ross thinks it would be “obvious” to update The Manchurian Candidate by making Cheney a dupe of al-Qaeda mind control is interesting, because that reflects a paranoid – and not a rationally paranoid – concept of what al-Qaeda is and how it operates. The “paranoid style” movies he’s criticizing reflect a worldview that is off-the-shelf paranoid, and that is indeed a real weakness. But a movie about an al-Qaeda sleeper agent controlling the government would only be persuasive to an audience that actually held paranoid beliefs about the world, because it is so completely detached from the actual nature of the enemy we face.

I agree with a great deal of what Noah has to say elsewhere in the post, but I disagree emphatically with him on this. The wild implausibility of having an al-Qaeda sleeper cell manipulating Dick Cheney is precisely why the filmmakers should have gone down that route. By suggesting that they should have looked for a villain who made more real-world sense (he suggests Iran, Israel, and Saudi Arabia), Noah is falling into the same trap as the people responsible for Syriana or The Constant Gardener or (to lesser extent) Michael Clayton: He's asking that paranoid films be "rationally paranoid," that they conform closely to the world we actually inhabit, and offer convincing accounts of how a massive conspiracy actually might go down. But the best paranoid films succeed precisely because they jettison the demands of realism: Like science fiction and other forms of speculative storytelling, they show us ourselves through a glass darkly, building worlds that resemble our own but don't pretend to be identical to it, and that comment on real-life events without aspiring to be anything close to perfectly realistic.

This was certainly true of the original Manchurian Candidate, which was a fascinating commentary on the relationship between Communism and McCarthyism precisely because it played as a Cold War fantasia, rather than a plausible account of how the Comintern might actually infiltrate the West. It's been true of all the great paranoid-style television shows, from The Prisoner to The X-Files to the first two seasons of Lost; it's true of apolitical paranoid masterpieces like Rosemary's Baby; and it was true in spades of '70s gems like The Parallax View and The Conversation. It hasn't been true, though, of too many Iraq-era movies. A film like Syriana, for instance, wants to be as paranoid as the original Manchurian Candidate and as realistic as its predecessor, Traffic, and it founders on the contradiction between the two approaches.