Dir:Jonathan Demme. US. 2004. 130 mins.
While not all of the choices made in it are successful, Jonathan Demme'scontemporary revamp of John Frankenheimer's marvelous The ManchurianCandidate is unquestionably one of the smarter, more persuasive films toemerge out of a Hollywood studio this year. Loaded with the intensity you'dexpect a cast led by Denzel Washington and Meryl Streep to deliver, Paramount'shigh-powered summer thriller is as politically charged in its way as Fahrenheit9/11 and should be a cause celebre in the media as much as a hot-ticket itemamong adult audiences.
It's unfortunate that this sophisticated film opens hot on the heels of TheBourne Supremacy in North America, since both titles cater to the samecinemagoers hungry for sharp, adult entertainment - an audience which has beenstarved of pictures so far this summer. Not that Bourne will compromise TheManchurian Candidate too heavily. A handsome box office result is stilllikely in the domestic market somewhere between other classy thrillers like TheTalented Mr Ripley ($81m) and Enemy Of The State ($111m).
International audiences will respond equally well after an anticipated VeniceFilm Festival premiere, especially since fascination with the US politicalsystem is at a high around the world this year.
Demme and screenwriters Pyne and Georgaris have made some fairly dramaticchanges to the structure of the first film. 1952 Korea becomes 1991 Kuwait. TheManchurian in the title relates not to China where the platoon is brainwashedin the first film, but to Manchurian Global, a powerful conglomerate which isattempting to get a stooge into the Oval Office. Raymond Shaw, in the firstfilm trained as an assassin in order to kill the presidential candidate so thathis stepfather, the vice presidential candidate, will move up, has become thevice presidential candidate in this film. Meanwhile Bennett Marco, the FrankSinatra character in the first film, has now become the trained assassin. Marcois no longer the sane hero trusted by the army, but a paranoid loner whomnobody will believe. Rosie, his loving new girlfriend as played by Janet Leighoriginally, is now an FBI agent who may or may not be his ally, played byKimberly Elise.
And of course the political subtext has changed. Whereas the first film was apithy comment on the McCarthy era and political extremism, both left and right,Demme's version is an attack on the corporatisation and greed prevalent incontemporary American politics and society. It could be called The HalliburtonCandidate, and there are clear parallels between Shaw's political cipher andGeorge Bush. If Michael Moore's documentary was out-and-out propaganda for theanti-Bush campaign, Demme's film is a more subtle brand, ostensibly takingplace within one party but essentially levelling its attacks on today'sadministration. The Gulf War connection of course could hardly be more relevantto today's world.
Although so much has been changed, some scenes in the new film are almostidentical to those in the first one, such as the opening in which the platoonCaptain Marco (Washington) and his unpopular patrician sergeant Shaw(Schreiber) rally the platoon to go on a cross-desert mission in Kuwait. Duringthat mission, they go missing for three days but return to civilization withtales of how Shaw single-handedly wiped out the enemy and saved the men, withthe exception of two who were missing in action.
A decade later, Shaw, who was awarded the medal of honour for his bravery, hasbecome a politician and his powerful and over-protective mother EleanorPrentiss Shaw (Streep) is positioning him as a candidate for the vicepresidency within 'the party' (presumably the Democrats).
Meanwhile Marco, now a major in the army, is accosted by his former corporal AlMelvin (Wright) who tells him that he has been plagued by nightmares aboutthose missing days in Kuwait. Although Marco fobs him off, he too soon startsto experience the visions of being held captive by a scientist (McBurney),brainwashed and forced to shoot one of his platoon.
The army thinks he's crazy, but Marco manages to confront Shaw himself with hisvisions and awakens doubts in Shaw's mind as to the veracity of the events inKuwait. Gradually Marco uncovers the extent of the conspiracy that has taken placeand how Manchurian Global is planning to control the free world through itspuppet-president. But neither Marco nor Shaw understands how easily their mindscan be triggered by the engineers of the Kuwait experiment, who include MrsPrentiss Shaw herself.
There is much to applaud about this new Manchurian Candidate. It's a thrill tosee Demme back on top of his game after the misfires of Beloved and TheTruth About Charlie; it's encouraging to see Paramount and Scott Rudindeliver a level of intelligent and complicated storytelling usually drained outof costly movies like this. It's also refreshing to see a remake take risks inits retelling. Critics will compare the two pictures, but Demme's film willcome out well in the comparison. It's a different Candidate for a differentpolitical era.
On the other hand, the new film doesn't succeed as a heart stopping thriller,opting for paranoia and anxiety over suspense (a la The Parallax View).Demme's storytelling is almost nonchalant in revealing elements of theconspiracy, whereas Frankenheimer's was urgent and visually dazzling. Alsomissing, for that matter, is the wit which made the first film such a timelessclassic.
Other shortcomings include the relationship between Marco and Rosie, which isnever satisfactorily clear, while the introduction of a maverick scientist whomMarco consults (as played by Bruno Ganz) adds a level of movie-landimplausibility which detracts from the contemporary resonances.
As you would expect from a Demme/Rudin picture, the production values aretop-notch, while the performances are excellent. Washington is a dependableanchor, but Streep and Schreiber are particularly riveting as dysfunctionalmother and son team. Streep's quietly ruthless Eleanor Shaw stands quite apartfrom Angela Lansbury's legendary 1962 creation, while Schreiber offers a morevulnerable and complicated character than Laurence Harvey's plain unlikeableRaymond. They are both bona fide contenders in the end-of-year awards race.
Prod cos: Scott Rudin Productions, Clinica Estetico.
US dist: Paramount Pictures
Int'l dist: UIP.
Exec prods: Scott Aversano.
Prods: Tina Sinatra, Scott Rudin, Jonathan Demme, Ilona Herzberg.
Scr: Daniel Pyne & Dean Georgaris, based on the novel by Richard Condon andthe screenplay by George Axelrod for the 1962 film directed by JohnFrankenheimer.
DoP: Tak Fujimoto.
Prod des: Kristi Zea.
Ed: Carol Littleton, Craig McKay.
Mus: Rachel Portman, featuring Wyclef Jean.
Main cast: Denzel Washington, Meryl Streep, Live Schrieber, Jon Voight,Kimberly Elise, Jeffrey Wright, Ted Levine, Bruno Ganz, Simon McBurney, VeraFarmiga, Robyn Hitchcock, Dean Stockwell