Like every critic in the country, I was ready to hate Jonathan Demme's remake of the 1962 Cold War classic by John Frankenheimer. I wanted to loathe it, like I did Gus Van Sant's pointless, film-by- numbers, no-conceptual-art redo of Psycho. I wanted to scorn it, like I did Demme's own inane The Truth About Charlie, a recapitulation of Charade. But I was wrong about The Manchurian Candidate (which opens Friday, July 30, at the Guild 45 and other theaters). It's not as good as the original, in which a Communist cabal conspires to assassinate the presidential nominee using a brainwashed Korean War vet in order to install a puppet as president. But it's been intelligently, importantly updated to suit our times, Dubya's times, in a way that Frankenheimer, Frank Sinatra, Laurence Harvey, Angela Lansbury, and Janet Leigh would—or should— undoubtedly applaud. (See p. 81 for the new DVD reissue of the '62 version.)
Like those luminaries, Demme is an unrepentant old-school liberal. Sinatra, whose original lead character is well played here by Denzel Washington, was a Rat Packer with a bleeding heart, an unreconstructed JFK lover who withdrew the Frankenheimer film from circulation following Nov. 22, 1963, when real bullets echoed the sniper shots that concluded the first Candidate. His daughter, Tina, was instrumental in releasing the original's rights to Demme, who has made good on the Camelot legacy.
Before, the unwittingly lethal dupe was the stiff son (Harvey) of a scheming mother (Lansbury) married to the vice-presidential candidate, whose running mate Harvey was to shoot at the nominating convention. Now the brainwashed Desert Storm hero is the guy standing onstage as potential VP: telegenic Congressman Raymond Shaw (Liev Schreiber), son of an ambitiously unhinged U.S. senator (Meryl Streep), who helps coach his tough-on-terrorism rhetoric. While not explicitly Democratic, his résumé reads like Kerry's script on steroids. Shaw has killed in combat. He has led troops. He won the Medal of Honor. Now he can help carry those precious red states with his mantra of "compassionate vigilance"—a phrase Demme ought to patent before one of our real political parties swipes it.
In a prologue, we see how Washington's character, Capt. Marco, was ignominiously KO'ed in Kuwait while Sgt. Shaw went on to glory. Later, their squad is known as "the lost patrol," for reasons Marco will subsequently investigate, wondering about the gaps in his own memory and his combat flashbacks and nightmares. By that time, Shaw is sidling toward the VP spot at the N.Y.C. convention, leaving us to wonder who'll be the triggerman.
As the first Candidate was a conspiracy movie, with Sinatra's traumatized Marco trying to understand who was pulling the strings, here there's a tangle of sinister forces connected, quite literally, to Shaw's brain. During the Cold War, a Communist plot was masked by a seemingly right-wing, anti-Communist agent. Today . . . well, the villains operate more openly. It's not hard to follow the money trail from the boardroom to the political back room. Without giving too much away, let's just say that Demme places his thriller in the most contemporary of political, corporate, and technological contexts. (Although industry groups have not yet perfected the art of drilling mind-control implants directly into the skulls of politicians, one suspects that with Cheney they just use some old copper pipe, duct tape, and baling wire.)
Hence, as Marco goes off his meds and begins to surrender to the paranoid dreams he shares with his other platoon members from Kuwait, the background noise on newscasts and television tickers begins to make a lot of paranoid sense. He becomes attuned, as it were, to schizophrenic political reality. The face, and voice, of Al Franken pops up regularly to supply news bulletins from a War on Terror in which "there's no end in sight," updates on pre-emptive U.S. bombings worldwide, the military being privatized, automated polling machines following their own secret code, and an Ashcroftian-Orwellian future that's just like today.
By the time an increasingly disheveled and bonkers-looking Marco tells a skeptical yet sympathetic liberal senator (Jon Voight) about "a coup, a regime change in our own country," his warning sounds like something out of Fahrenheit 9/11. Maybe that's why you quickly get past the objection to remaking such an iconic film—you can enjoy it more for being credible fiction rather than Michael Moore's incredible nonfiction. Moore and Demme are addressing the same essential subjects (electoral illegitimacy and the abuse of power by moneyed elites), but Demme's tone is lighter, his touch more deft. Moore loses focus and hurts his cause because he's so mad, while Demme's tale of political madness seems all the more real for being a fantasia.
Accordingly, the political-convention scenes are perfectly convincing in their shallow showmanship and spectacle. Behind the scenes, where the political arm-twisting is done, Streep almost eclipses Lansbury's great performance as the ultimate scary, controlling mother. Her ruthless senator crushes opponents with the kind of force only von Clausewitz or Machiavelli would understand; then she turns on a dime to dote on her son—yes, the famous kiss is reprised, and more is suggested—and coo at the cameras. In a brilliant throwaway moment, Streep tosses the ice from an empty soda in her mouth, then chews the cubes with the grind and gnash of a machine.
The movie could've used more of her malice and a less of Washington's dogged sleuthing and Googling at the public library. Unlike Mel Gibson in Conspiracy Theory, he doesn't have enough gusto for his character's nuttiness and resentment. When he gets to the obligatory "I'm not crazy" moment, you think, "How could he be? This is Denzel Washington we're talking about." Moreover, despite his flashbacks and hallucinations, the movie makes the whole brainwashing device rather selective—the machine runs out of quarters whenever the plot demands. Marco and Shaw both seem to slip in and out of volition, which makes the ending somewhat problematic, as do the layers upon layers of suspicious federal agents Demme uses to add additional twists.
In truth, it's more fun to watch this new Candidate while the system is being subverted than it is when order is restored. For a more plausibly happy ending, we—along with Moore and Demme—may have to wait for the November election.