The Manchurian Candidate

July, 2004, Thriller

After giving audiences a brilliant documentary last year, (The Agronomist) director Jonathan Demme, (Silence of the Lambs, Married To The Mob, Philadelphia) returns to feature films with this remake of John Frankenheimer's classic study of Cold War paranoia that featured outstanding performances by Frank Sinatra, Lawrence Harvey and Angela Lansbury in the movie’s three principle roles. A commercial flop when originally released in 1962, Candidate came to be recognized as something of a classic--a dramatic thriller with a fascinating subtext. While Demme's remake is far superior to The Truth About Charlie, his dreary attempt to reproduce the charms of the Cary Grant/Audrey Hepburn thriller Charade, the current effort, featuring Denzel Washington, Live Schreiber and Meryl Streep lacks the superb tension and dramatic flow of the original. That's partly the fault of an overly complex storyline and poor sequencing, but the main culprit may also be the simple passage of time.

The plot's been reset to the present day, but it remains basically unchanged; a small unit of soldiers, (this time in the first Gulf War) return home bearing the marks of severe psychological and emotional problems. One G.I., Sergeant Raymond Shaw, (Schreiber) enters politics under the watchful, pressuring eye of his domineering mother, while Captain Bennett Marco, (Washington) his immediate commander, begins to suspect that he and the members of his unit were subjected to very sophisticated brainwashing. As Marco unravels the disturbing elements of his own behavior and that of his squad, he becomes convinced that Shaw's atypical reactions indicate he's being manipulated for purposes both sinister and terribly dangerous. 

All this is developed with the kind of slick deductive work Demme employed so skillfully in Silence of the Lambs; tantalizing clues teased from mumbling minor characters, deeply-troubling sketches that point towards unlikely suspects, embedded microchips uncovered in disturbing locations. The director's use of CNN/Fox News-type "crawlers" under the television coverage of an impending Presidential election, when coupled with voice-overs detailing military actions against terrorists around the globe have an uncanny and unnerving immediacy. 

Paranoia remains the principle theme; in the original, the prospect of Communist domination provided the driving force of evil; this time it's global corporate power, provided by a thinly disguised multinational even the most politically illiterate will quickly recognize as Halliburton. This celluloid version of the Administration's go-to private sector resource employs a renegade South African physician whose manner, bearing and hairstyle resembles Hollywood's amalgamation of Dr. Mengle and Hitler. 

If Demme had been as capable as his predecessor in understating the sources of the malignancy under examination, he'd have given his audiences a much better movie; as Marco probes the nature of his mounting concerns, we're provided far too much literal explanation; elaborate brain surgery, aborted scenes of subjects jammed under metal contraptions resembling beauty-parlor hair dryers and lots of pseudo-scientific mumbo-jumbo uttered by the illustrious Swiss actor Bruno Ganz with more credibility than his lines deserve. These attempts to lend credence to the possibility of mind-control keep interrupting the Marco's investigation, creating a number of awkward transitions and draining the action of much of its potential force.

Demme may have felt that he needed so much detailed exposition for a reason which didn't challenge Frankenheimer's original; the early sixties was a time when many Americans remembered all too well the examples of North Korean brainwashing utilized on our captured soldiers less than a decade before. That fear, coupled with the pervasive anxiety that was a principal by-product of the Cold War didn't need elaborate exposition; just hinting at it conveyed the possibility of a level of effectiveness contemporary audiences simply would not accept, given what we've subsequently experienced. Whatever the reasons, Demme burdens his movie with detail that slows its pace and culminates in an assassination attempt that's overlong and well short of riveting. 

The three principles bring solid credibility to their roles; Washington's deeply troubled career Army officer contains the right blend of no-nonsense military bearing and painful vulnerability, while Schreiber, known mostly for his brilliant stage work, brings a touching sympathy to his part as a manipulated automaton. But Streep steals the picture; makeup and wardrobe add just the right number of years to her role as a politically ambitious maven.  Her frightening energy and acidic, contemptuous tongue create a modern Lady Mac Beth, as terrifying as she is credible. This is not a woman you want to screw, much less screw with.

Many will decry this as an inappropriately political film, given its opening just days after the Democratic Convention and the heavy-handed manner in which in equates corporate power with neo-fascism, but that's an accusation that doesn't stand close scrutiny; this is merely an adequate thriller that suffers from inevitable comparison to its iconoclastic predecessor.  

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