Shane O’Sullivan, “The Real Manchurian Candidate” (e2 films, 2018)
Sirhan Bishara Sirhan is notorious as the man who fatally shot Senator Robert F Kennedy, the younger brother of the 35th President of the United States John F Kennedy, in Los Angeles in June 1968, while the senator was campaigning for the Democratic Party nomination for presidential elections later in the year. In this documentary, Dr Daniel Brown, a lecturer in hypnotherapy at Harvard Medical School, and Sirhan’s lawyer Laurie Dusek discuss their observations of Sirhan’s behaviours and their conversations with him in trying to recover his memories of what he did on that night in 1968, and both raise quite credible information that suggests that Sirhan had been hypnotised by other people into being a distraction for the real assassin and to take the blame for the murder. In particular, both Dr Brown and Dusek assert that Sirhan had been hypnotised and trained to respond to cues in his environment that would send him into “range mode” (a trance mode) during which he would shoot at certain targets, and of which he would later have no memories.
The film takes the form of two continuous interviews of Dr Brown and Dusek running in parallel, the camera switching from one to the other and back again, with archival film material of RFK (photographic stills) and of Sirhan being questioned inserted into the film at particular points. Film of Sirhan applying for parole is also shown. The flow of information can be haphazard, as interviews are wont to be, and the discussion jumps from details of the cues that Sirhan had been trained under several episodes of hypnosis to respond to (by falling into a trance state) and Sirhan’s belief that he was at a shooting range when in fact he was close to RFK, to Sirhan’s background and personality at the time he was selected to be the patsy to distract the crowds around RFK and the scapegoat for the crime. Viewers not familiar with the assassination or the hypnosis methods that were used on Sirhan may like to watch Episode 1 “The Assassin” of “Derren Brown: The Experiments”, made in 2011, in which host Derren Brown (no relation to Dr Brown) uses some of the hypnosis techniques and cues employed by the people who used Sirhan to hypnotise and train a subject to “assassinate” the actor Stephen Fry.
Near the end of the film, Dusek talks about the appalling treatment meted out to Sirhan in prison and how he bears up under bullying and intimation from the prison adminisation. Dusek vows to continue to defend Sirhan, recognising that his family has suffered and continues to suffer from the RFK assassination as Kennedy’s own family does. Dr Brown refers to the intimidation he has been subjected to by the US government but vows to continue assisting Sirhan and Dusek as part of his contribution to defending American democracy.
Perhaps the interviews could have been broken up and restructured so that parts could be regrouped under specific topic areas, such as those aspects of Sirhan’s personality and background that made him an ideal hypnosis subject, the cues that set him off (in particular, the woman in the blue dress with white polka dots) and the various MK-ULTRA experiments carried out by the CIA on mind control in the 1960s and 1970s. This would have made the film a little more accessible to people not familiar with hypnosis or psychology. The information given is very dense and viewers may need repeated viewings to fully absorb what Dr Brown and Dusek say about Sirhan and the implications of what they say: that Sirhan may be innocent, that there may have been a real conspiracy (which could have involved the then head of the FBI J Edgar Hoover) to get rid of RFK and that other political assassinations in the US could also have been carried out by hypnotised scapegoats.