On the surface, the idea of remaking most movies appears rather pointless. When it comes to universally acknowledged classics of Western cinema like John Frankenheimer’s 1962 masterpiece, The Manchurian Candidate, it seems almost insane. The original – steeped in Cold War paranoia, absurdist satire, and urban legends surrounding its connection to Lee Harvey Oswald – always seemed like one of those rare films Hollywood studios wouldn’t have the temerity to remake. Of course, Hollywood is nothing if not predictable, so it came as no big surprise to most people when Paramount announced it was filming a new version of “Candidate.” The movie wrapped several months ago, and opens with relatively little fanfare on the heels of cacophonous summer blockbusters like Spider-Man 2 and I, Robot.
Unsurprisingly, Jonathan Demme’s “The Manchurian Candidate” is not the equal of Frankenheimer’s. What is surprising is how fresh Demme’s version is and how close it approaches the original in terms of quality.
Fans of the 1962 version will recognize the salient details (all you other heathens need to reorganize your Netflix queues). During the first Gulf War, Maj. Bennett Marco (Denzel Washington) served in a reconnaissance unit with one Sgt. Raymond Shaw (Liev Schreiber). Their squad came under ambush and Marco was knocked unconscious. Shaw seized control of a machine gun and single-handedly wiped out their attackers. Now, 13 years and a Medal of Honor later, Shaw is a U.S. Congressman and a rising political star, while Marco is suffering from nightmares and hallucinations that increasingly make him question the events of that night. Marco and Shaw haven’t seen much of each other since the war, but the former is determined to seek Shaw out and alert him to his suspicions that someone has tampered with their memories.
To do so, however, Marco will have to somehow get past his former comrade’s mother, Senator Eleanor Shaw (Meryl Streep). The Senator is angling to get her son the vice-presidential slot on her party’s ticket in the upcoming election and doesn’t have time for burned out vets spouting wild conspiracy theories. Especially those theories that might hit a little too close to home. As Marco digs deeper, he uncovers connections between the Shaw campaign and global conglomerate Manchurian Global (so obviously analogous to a certain other corporation with ties to the current Administration that the writers don’t even try to hide it) as well as further evidence of how he, Shaw, and the rest of their squad were brainwashed. All of this culminates in a climax at the party’s convention to nominate Shaw and his running mate for the presidency. How very timely.
The performances in “The Manchurian Candidate” are what really stand out. Streep, especially, is excellent as the two-faced Senator Shaw. Wisely, she doesn’t attempt to mimic Angela Lansbury’s ice queen act from the original, but portrays the Senator as a political operator so savvy she can actually sell the “I’m just proud of my son” act to the media while tearing the men on the nominating committee a few new ones. As for the male leads, Washington’s Marco isn’t his typical stoic action hero; he’s on meds for Gulf War Syndrome, haggard, and not someone you’d want to meet coming out of the VA Hospital. Schreiber, on the other hand, is a cold fish who resents his mother for sabotaging a relationship that he perceived as his one shot at happiness. He’s practically robotic, until his switch is flipped on. Finally, we have Jon Voight, who takes a break from classics like “Anaconda” and “The Karate Dog” to portray Shaw’s rival for the VP seat. His Senator Jordan is a welcome exercise in understatement, considering some of his recent efforts. Taken in sum, the acting in this film is some of the best in recent memory.
Demme’s version of “Candidate” draws heavily from Richard Condon’s novel and the 1962 original. The Cold War is long over, however, so the strings are no longer pulled by the Commies, but the actual winners in that conflict; big business. Unfortunately, the film’s primary weakness lies in its assumption that the idea of corporate manipulation of politics is somehow shocking to modern-day audiences. Conspiracy theory and corruption make up the new lingua franca of modern political dialogue, so none but the film’s more far out concepts will be too farfetched for today’s audiences. And lines like Voight’s assertion that Shaw may be the first corporate-owned Vice-President in history are likely to draw more snickers than gasps from the audience.
Accusations that “The Manchurian Candidate” is excessively partisan ring hollow, however. Manchurian Global’s head honcho, for example, mentions the candidates in both camps that the company has bought, and the filmmakers never specify which party Shaw belongs to. All this is obviously meant to paint the electoral system, both parties, and the superficiality of the modern political process with the same damning brush. I didn’t consider the film particularly dogmatic, especially since Streep’s character is – assumedly – a member of the same party as her son and is in cahoots with MG. The film also levels scorn at the glitz and pageantry of Arthur and Shaw’s nominating convention, and since the opposing candidates are never really shown, who’s actually being mocked?
The ending is a cop-out, unfortunately. Demme, having spun a fresh and updated take on a venerated movie, wimps out at the last minute and derails what could have been a truly resonant cinematic experience. As it is, the preceding 100 minutes are still worthy, but the film itself falls short of true greatness.