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Manchurian Candidate, The (2004) Print E-mail
Friday, 30 July 2004
Jonathan Demme’s last film, “The Truth About Charlie,” was a remake of a 1960s classic, “Charade.” His new movie is also a remake of the 1960s classic of the same title—but this time Demme really scores. His new “The Manchurian Candidate” may not be as tense, surprising and witty as the original, but it’s very good all the way around, a remake to put alongside the original as a matching thriller based on paranoia.

The original film was the best movie ever directed by John Frankenheimer, who worked from a script by George Axelrod, adapting the novel by Richard Condon (“Prizzi’s Honor”). In it, the disturbing “Red Scare” of the 1950s was used as fodder for a dark, suspenseful satire of the right AND the left. The biggest problem facing Demme and his screenwriters Daniel Pyne and Dean Georgaris was to find a latter-day equivalent of this conflict. And they really haven’t done it, because there aren’t two such vividly opposed factions at large today. But they have found a basis for the story, and this time Raymond Shaw himself is the Manchurian Candidate.

In 1991, Capt. Bennett Marco (Denzel Washington) leads the visibly reluctant Live Schreiber) and a platoon into a hazardous area of Kuwait. What happens thereafter isn’t entirely clear. It’s known that Shaw held off attackers, saving all of his platoon but two, and for this he was granted the Medal of Honor. Because of his fame for this, his ambitious mother, Sen. Eleanor Shaw (Meryl Streep) directed Raymond’s successful congressional campaign. Raymond isn’t happy about this, but lacks the spine to pull away, and he also enjoys giving (rather nebulous) political speeches.

It’s now some 12 years later. Eleanor has strong hopes of getting Raymond onto the ticket of their party as the Vice Presidential nominee. Marco is still in the Army, giving lectures to Boy Scouts, that sort of thing, when he’s approached by the emotionally devastated Al Melvin (Jeffrey Wright), who had been in the platoon in 1991. Melvin’s a bundle of nerves, suffering from nightmares about the three days of the Gulf War incident that led to Shaw receiving the Medal of Honor. Marco tries to assure Melvin that he himself is not having any such nightmares.

But in the next scene, he buys several boxes of No-Doz and returns to his disorderly apartment, where one wall is devoted to clippings about Shaw. He is having nightmares that seem to involve an enthusiastic scientist (Simon McBurney), a bunker hidden in the desert, and the sight of Shaw smothering one of the two soldiers who were reported killed.

Evelyn has a lot of political power and uses it to get Raymond on the election team as the Vice Presidential nominee. Raymond himself is a shade reluctant and clearly confused regarding his feelings about his mother.
Marco begins to suspect that more happened to them than his conscious memory reveals, and that there may be something very wrong with Raymond Shaw who, when Marco approaches him, coldly tells his former superior to keep his hands off. Marco’s superiors order him to leave Shaw alone. Marco remains suspicious, even though he seems to think Shaw is the kindest, warmest, bravest, most selfless human being he has ever known. And yet he can’t trust him. Maybe it’s one of Shaw’s political catchphrases—“compassionate vigilance”—that eats at him, maybe it’s those nightmares.

On a train to New York, Raymond meets attractive Rosie (Kimberly Elise), who recognized him from the supermarket where he buys No-Doz and instant noodles. (Shaw is also seen eating noodles.) She invites him to stay in her cousin’s apartment where, while taking a shower, he finds a tiny metallic implant under the skin of his back, but it is accidentally dropped down the drain.

Marco is still unsure of what’s going on, even when Melvin turns up dead, and persists in trying to get to Shaw. He also contacts respectable Senator Thomas Jordan (Jon Voight); though he and Evelyn are political enemies, some years before his daughter Jocelyn (Vera Farmiga) and Raymond had fallen in love. Evelyn quickly broke up the romance and Raymond enlisted. But he’s still deeply attached to Jocelyn, and tells her that he still longs for her.

Marco struggles to discover what happened to him and to Raymond, and why. He’s convinced that the international cartel Manchurian Global, which is on the verge of supplying a private army for U.S. use, is somehow involved. Events head for a climax at the political convention, and even those who know the original movie well are in for some surprises.

Wisely, Demme has not aped the vivid style of the original film, but instead has developed his own. It’s rich in detail, both in terms of the plot and what’s going on around the edges; we overhear news reports about military action in Indonesia and Guinea, and some violence in the United States as well. Things are clearly shaky, clearly the election is crucial, and just as clearly, Evelyn and Manchurian Global are not really concerned about anything other than power and profits.

The brooding, almost sinister music by Rachel Portman links disparate scenes, providing an emotional connection that’s almost just below the threshold of awareness. Background sounds also play a part, sometimes ironic, as when the encounter between Marco and Melvin is underlain by the sounds of children playing just outside. Demme adopts a subtly emphatic visual style; the movie, with cinematography by Tak Fujimoto, is full of extreme closeups, and in these shots, the characters look directly into the camera. The color is dark and muted, whether the scene is an interior or an exterior. It’s an extremely well-crafted movie, the kind that will reveal something new each time it’s watched.

The script isn’t as sardonic as that of the original movie, but things have changed. In 1962, political assassinations were so rare as to be almost unthinkably absurd. The two sides in the film, right wing and left, viewed each other with unyielding suspicion, even hatred, while Frankenheimer and his crew took a more distant, even coolly ironic, viewpoint. Here, the issues are more serious, there’s less room for satire, or even mild spoofing: this new “Manchurian” is almost sober.

This is reflected especially in Liev Schreiber’s performance as Raymond. In the original film, Laurence Harvey was so arrogantly nasty at times, and so pathetically wrecked at others, that he grabbed our attention. Schreiber is more subtle; his Raymond Shaw isn’t quite as coolly patrician, but also not as much of an emotional wreck. In the various brainwashing scenes, Raymond even smiles, which in itself is pretty damned creepy.

Meryl Streep is intense and focused as the ambitious Evelyn; some may see a bit of Hillary Clinton in her style, but there have been other tough women politicians who could easily have been models for Streep. There’s always something going on in Evelyn’s mind and her face; she’s a complex person, even more so than Angela Lansbury in the original film. But she’s not as scary, not as domineering as Lansbury; nonetheless, it’s an excellent performance, and could well get Streep another Oscar nomination.

In the original film, Frank Sinatra’s Marco was only briefly a bundled of jangled nerves, reading his way through a dizzying variety of books just to keep his mind occupied. Here, Washington’s Marco is already half convinced that what he remembers happening on that night in 1991 isn’t what happened at all, and that Raymond Shaw is involved. But he’s not sure. Washington’s nerves are jangled all the way through; he wants to get to Raymond, but he’s not sure what he’ll do when that happens.

As is often the case with Demme’s movies, familiar faces turn up here and there: Miguel Ferrer and Ted Levine (from “The Silence of the Lambs”) are Marco’s superiors; Dean Stockwell is one of the Manchurian Global chiefs; Zeljko Ivanek is a political bigwig, Charles Napier a general, Bruno Ganz a scientist who tries to help Marco; even Demme’s old boss Roger Corman can be spotted. Though the movie is serious, it’s not grim, and there is at least some sense of playfulness about the whole project. It’s not as shocking and surprising as the original, and it may take a bit of thought to sort through some of the plot. But this is a different world than in 1962.

Paramount claims it’s a coincidence that this movie is coming out the week the Democratic convention opened, and that may be true. However, it’s also true that the movie does have a point of view of its own; let’s just say they don’t consider Halliburton to be exactly benefactors. Al Franken even appears briefly as a journalist. This movie will cause many on the right to writhe in pain and demand that it be censored, but if John Wayne could make “The Green Berets” during the Vietnam War, it’s only fair that “The Manchurian Candidate” could come out right now. Thought it does lean toward the liberal side, there’s no electioneering in the movie. It’s an intense, suspenseful science fiction thriller, as paranoid as anything by Philip K. Dick, and the setting is American politics. There should be more such movies.

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