Same As It Ever Was

Welcome to the corporation: Denzel Washington in 'The Manchurian Candidate'
Paramount Pictures

From the first startling blast of "Fortunate Son"--cover tune of the political moment for pissed-off musicians from Sleater-Kinney to, here, Wyclef Jean--director Jonathan Demme begins to craft an answer to the anguished cry of film critics across America: Why remake--why ruin--a brilliant Cold War classic? Filmmakers with revision in mind are supposed to limit themselves to material slight enough that improvement is possible. (Of course, Demme tried that with The Truth About Charlie, his Charade rehab, proving that some old movies are less slight than they look, especially Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn movies.) But Sleater-Kinney's update on the far-from-flimsy "Fortunate Son" is as riveting and necessary as Creedence's original. (The same cannot be said of Jean's, alas.) And Demme breathes into The Manchurian Candidate a scathing, of-the-moment critique that at times made this critic shiver.

One could argue that Demme's fiction is a more penetrating piece of election year agitprop than Fahrenheit 9/11--if one wanted to waste time pointing fingers sideways. A more inspiring argument could be made that a groundswell of artists is confronting political realities in a way that hasn't been seen in music since the early days of hip hop and punk, and in film since...hell, those forgettable years before Reagan's Morning in America and CNN. In an era of feel-good, "apolitical" adventures such as Spider-Man, it's kind of amazing that Demme could get this movie out. Then again, remakes are a "safe" gamble. More people will probably see this Candidate than saw 1999's Three Kings, a pretty ferocious view of the first Desert Debacle. (The director of that film, David O. Russell, is only this fall releasing his follow-up.)

Let me be clear: The 2004 version does not rock the 1962 original. Angela Lansbury is still unrivaled as the scheming mother of a Korean War soldier brainwashed and returned to the U.S. as the ultimate assassin. Her character's merciless ability to play both sides--whipping up anti-Communist paranoia in the U.S. via her senator husband while conspiring with Communists--is past alarming. Indeed, her merciless speech, given on the eve of a planned political coup, curdles the blood in its prescient disdain for the rights of citizens and its lust for unquestioned power. Director John Frankenheimer smartly cuts the suspense with humor: His illustration of the nightmares suffered by the soldier (Laurence Harvey) and his captain (Frank Sinatra) is unforgettable--the implanted memory of a ladies' garden group sliding obscenely into the real memory of a doctor demonstrating his puppet-subjects' killer obedience.

Demme unfortunately chooses to feature a fuzzy, hallucinogenic portrayal of the brainwashing itself, and goes for a bloody "reality" puppet show when Frankenheimer's understatement was more horrifying. For worse and better, the remake is a splashier, wilder, noisier movie--partly because media has become noisier and splashier since 1962, and, more importantly, because one of Demme's subjects is our noisy, splashy media. The original's basic premise--that in times of national paranoia, citizen paranoia may be justified--remains intact, this time wearing the clothes of post-9/11 demagoguery. Armed soldiers patrol Penn Station in New York; Denver has undergone a terrorist attack. And there are TV screens everywhere, pumping out a constant stream of ramped up news and political rhetoric, at once nerving up and pacifying the populace.

Capt. Ben Marco (Denzel Washington), Gulf War vet, speaks at a Boy Scout troop meeting, warmly recommending a military career. Soon enough, though, he's revealed as a head case, someone who might believe another soldier's crazed visions of what really went on in a Gulf skirmish that left Marco injured and made a hero of his sergeant, Raymond Shaw (Liev Schreiber). Marco's superiors order him to take his medications and rest. Instead, he tries to find out the truth behind his own nightmares by tracking down Shaw, a congressperson soon to become a vice presidential candidate. Marco is met by disbelief, hardball opposition from Shaw's mother, Senator Eleanor Prentiss Shaw (Meryl Streep), and generosity from a stranger on a train (Kimberly Elise).

Demme's attempt to recapture Sinatra and Janet Leigh's alternately arch and tender train hookup doesn't work. But he does give the girlfriend character something to do besides cook breakfast. In general, Demme has granted Manchurian's women increased independence and motivation (which ought to be automatic 40 years down the line, but isn't, as Spidey's squeeze has proven). Streep's senator is a clever composite of Hillary Clinton and Margaret Thatcher. She gets her own shivery speech, which could've been lifted from any Fox News commentary, deriding the patriotism of those who'd rather wage peace than endless, escalating war (the latter scenario being hugely profitable for certain multinational corporations, as Demme makes obvious).

Frankenheimer's movie eases off the gas a bit in the middle by bringing Marco back into the fold of U.S. intelligence, his brainwashing theory accepted. Demme offers no such support. Looking as ugly as a beautiful man can, his 'fro bumpy, his shoulders slumped, his face puffy, Washington's Marco raves about implants and brain invasions like any two-bit UFO abductee. He bites Shaw. He's not cool, like Sinatra's character, only driven. Should the audience align with him--a disheveled black killer--and not with the smooth, well-dressed man of privilege?

"I ain't no millionaire's son," Jean sneers over the opening shot of soldiers, skins of every hue, playing cards in a crowded vehicle, small in the Iraqi desert. All of them will be dead before the movie ends. At one point, a rogue scientist tells Marco that brainwashing requires no expensive technology: just electroshock and sleep deprivation. In other words: our constant media noise. A scene at a political convention shows a spectacle of music and video, the crowd orchestrated into a frenzy. Even the "good" guys manipulate image. How do we, the brainwashed, learn to distinguish between what is real and what is not? According to the cost, says Demme. And he's not talking about the cost in dollars.

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