On its own terms, Jonathan Demme’s remake of The Manchurian Candidate is an absorbing pulp entertainment. However, as a remake, it’s really a semi-cerebral popcorn movie in which the ideas are not very deep and the conceits, borrowed from 1970s paranoid thrillers, not particularly fresh.
Younger audiences who have not seen John Frankenheimer’s 1962 cult classic may enjoy this Manchurian as a “new” paranoia thriller with its own resonance and links to the post 9/11 reality. However, older viewers are likely to engage in inevitable comparisons between the two films along thematic, ideological, stylistic, and contextual terms.
Though Richard Condon’s pulp novel and George Axelrod’s screenplay are credited as source material, writers Daniel Pyne and Dean Georgaris have made significant changes that alter the original text and subtext. Add to it a vastly different socio-political context in which the Demme’s film is seen, and you have a radically different work.
For starters, the Korean War in the 1962 film has been updated into the 1991 Gulf War, which presents a problem since it was shorter, less traumatic, and less meaningful for its soldiers than Korea.
Even so, both films begin on the battlefield, depicting a nasty combat and ambush. In Demme’s film, a platoon led by Army Captain Bennett Marco (Denzel Washington) is attacked in Iraqi-controlled land in Kuwait. The story then flash forwards to the present, 12 years after the War, to find Ben as a Major serving in Washington D.C.
Playing the role that Frank Sinatra originated, Washington provides the center of gravity, if not clarity. Out of the blue, Ben receives an unexpected visit from an old comrade, Melvin (the brilliant Jeffrey Wright), who appears to be disturbed. Melvin relates nightmares, which are reflected in deranged, intensely violent graphic drawings. The nightmares sound familiar to Ben since he has been having the same. Though perplexed, Ben is instructed by the Army to secure counseling for what is summarily dismissed as Gulf War Syndrome. But Ben keeps puzzling over Melvin’s macabre visions, particularly after Melvin’s body is found in the ocean.
What Ben remembers about the ambush doesn’t coincide with what he sees in his dreams and believes to be true. He has been taught what to say but that’s not what he feels. In Ben’s nightmares, the soldiers are shown to be part of a strange medical experiment.
Ben is unmotivated to act on his suspicions that something is wrong until he learns that Raymond Shaw (Liev Schreiber), who had fought with him and saved the platoon, has unexpectedly been selected to run for vice president.
Schreiber, who plays the Laurence Harvey role, is now a two-term New York Congressman vying for the White House, pushing aside the frontrunner, Senator Thomas Jordan (Jon Voight), a hard-working and more liberal vet politician. The new film maintains the idea of Raymond’s lost love for Senator Jordan’s daughter, an affair aborted by his monstrous mother, Ellie (Meryl Streep).
In Demme’s film, Ellie (made to look like Hillary Clinton) is a widowed Senator who channels her frustrations and unfulfilled ambitions into her son’s future. A hard-line military chauvinist, who despises wimpy liberal, Ellie manipulates her son into the White House. She is determined to see her son rise to power at any price, willing to destroy anything and anyone that stands in the way of her unbridled ambitions. Indeed, after winning the elections by a landslide, Ellie schemes to have Arthur, the presidential candidate, assassinated by Ben.
Demme’s version eliminates the key character of Senator John Iselin, Raymond’s stepfather, a satirical stand-in for the boozy and nasty Senator Joseph McCarthy. Hence, the whole Freudian psychology of a son who hates his stepfather is gone, and the animosity is now single-mindedly directed at his castrating mother.
Streep plays Ellie more realistically and less flamboyantly than Angela Lansbury (who was ferociously over the top). Just as dotting and domineering as Lansbury’s mom, in this version, Ellie also holds incestuous fascination with her son.
In Demme’s rendition, Rosie (Kimberly Elise), Ben’s girlfriend, is a stronger woman than the character played by Janet Leigh in 1962. Reflecting the zeitgeist, Rosie, like Ellie, is a career woman, a FBI agent; for a while, Rosie’s priorities and how much she cares for Ben remain unclear. Like in the first film, Ben and Rosie’s first meeting takes place on a train, but their encounter is more mundane, lacking the peculiar, seductive tone of that scene in the first film.
The most important change is in the villain’s identity and the nature of the threat. In the original film, a quintessential product of the Cold War hysterical mentality, the enemy was Communism (both Soviet and Chinese) and the threat was ideological brainwashing. In this version, the threat is mind control and the enemy is the greedy American corporate capitalism.
The enemy takes the shape of a huge corporation, Manchurian Global (probably standing in for Haliburton) that specializes in servicing the military. Demme and his writers are using theories of the Power Elite and the Military-Industrial Complex, which were developed in the 1950s and are sill valid today.
Instead of Frankenheimer’s surreal gatherings of pinkos and Asian ladies programming American soldiers to kill their fellows on command, the new film offers a high-tech experiment in which tiny metal implants can alter the brain, coercing individuals to engage unconsciously in violent acts.
Stylistically, Demme’s “Manchurian Candidate” is different from the original. It’s film noir in color, which is no problem. However, the lush cinematography by Demme’s regular Tak Fujimoto lacks the dense, claustrophobic tone achieved by the black-and white lensing of Lionel Lindon. The speedy editing of Ferris Webster, who was Oscar-nominated, is also absent. Instead, Carol Littleton and Craig McKay’s cutting is more in the classic vein.
The climax and the upbeat denouement are problematic and seem to have been tempered with in post-production, perhaps as a result of test screenings. After struggling with his conscience, Ben, positioned in the projection room of the convention, fulfills Raymond’s urging to put an end to the conspiracy and kill him and his mom. Just when Ben is about to take his own life, Rosie bursts into his boot and shoots him in the shoulder.
Assuming visual symmetry, the saga begins and ends on a desert island. In the last, out of tune image, Ben and Rosie are seen walking through the ruins where Ben and his platoon were taken years before. Is the ordeal over Are we meant to believe that the conspiracy is defeated and order is restored
The context in which the 1962 and the new films were made has changed. Though Americans may be just as paranoid at present as they were in the 1950s, the source of their paranoia is different. No longer fearful of Communism and Evil Empires or nuclear disaster, our real danger comes from without in the form of international terrorism. So much has happened in American politics and culture that only naive viewers will be shocked by the military-industrial conspiracy that dominates Demme’s film.
The whole film is soaked with moral ambiguity and creepy tensions. There is no longer a moral center for the audience to trust or hold onto. Just when the viewers begin to believe that Ben knows what he’s doing, the scripters tarnish his presumed reliability and ethics, saddling him with serious doubts, irresolvable moral concerns, deep-seated alienation, and emotional emptiness.
In tone, this “Manchurian Candidate” tries to resurrect the conspiracy films of the 1970s, a cycle that began with “Klute” and “The Candidate” and reached its apex with “The Conversation,” “Chinatown,” “Nashville,” and “All the President’s Men.” (See Film Comment). Released on the heels of Michael Moore’s “Farenheit 9/11” and “The Bourne Supremacy,” Demme’s movie announces the arrival of the reinvented paranoid thriller.
Imbuing this film with greater immediacy are the references to the current state of American politics. The most effective scenes are set at a party convention and on Election Day. The Manchurian Candidate is released during a hotly debated Election year; in fact, the movie opened just one day after the Democratic National Convention. As a filmmaker, you can’t aspire to be more relevant than that.