By John DeFore
If John Frankenheimer's Manchurian Candidate was both behind and ahead of the times (its satire of the Red Scare coming well after Joseph McCarthy's heyday, its assassination plot eerily anticipating JFK's murder), then Jonathan Demme's remake arrives in exactly the right season - one in which mistrust of the government's means and motives is running wild, making a paranoid political thriller like this one feel like an explosion of the collective unconscious.
And where Frankenheimer's movie alternated between fantastically clever camera play and long scenes of talky exposition, Demme's is integrated - a sweaty Pop ride in which even one-to-one dialogue scenes are charged with cinematic energy.
While the director's last Hollywood outing, a remake of Charade, suffered from comparisons to its more debonair predecessor, Demme has learned his lessons here: He takes the story's solid bones - brainwashed war hero, presidential politics, and one of cinema's great Lady Macbeth roles - and changes enough of the details to keep it suspenseful even for viewers who have recently revisited the original.
Some key parts have been rejiggered: Sergeant Raymond Shaw (Liev Schreiber), the brainwashed veteran whose war heroics never happened but are simply a story planted in his comrades' brains by sinister forces, is now a candidate for Vice President, not a sleeper assassin. Frankly, things make more sense this way: If you wanted to take over the world, wouldn't you rather have your mindless pawn in the White House than doing life in prison?
In keeping with the times, Shaw's puppetmasters are no longer Communists; they're "Manchurian Global," a war-contracts conglomerate whose investors include presidents and kings. Let's see: Blank-slate stooge headed for the White House, Halliburtonish megacorp pulling the strings ... all we need now is Karl Rove.
Hello, Meryl Streep. As Shaw's mother, a political player whose tactics would make Machiavelli blush, Streep does what many might think impossible: She steps into a role made iconic by Angela Lansbury and, within seconds, claims it for her own. Both performances are nightmare caricatures of motherhood; Streep's balances a steely, work-all-the-angles public persona with a passive-aggressive, button-pushing private face. It's an exaggeration, but Eleanor Shaw's manipulation of her son is frighteningly believable.
There have been rumblings in Rumorville that Streep's performance is modeled on a real-life politician whose name rhymes with Billary Swinton. The Limbaugh Legions will likely read it that way, but this is one of many places where Demme happily crosses the wires. He jumbles his political signals throughout the film, alluding to real-life characters on both ends of the political spectrum. The Shaws (whose party affiliation is never stated) appear to be Democrats, but Raymond's message of "Compassionate Vigilance" is an obvious Bush reference, and his mother has an anti-PC extremist streak. Demme and his screenwriters obviously have current events in mind - John Fogerty's "Fortunate Son," which opens and closes the picture, is a more pointed protest today than when it was written - but this is corkscrew commentary compared to the blunt-object allegory of Silver City, the upcoming John Sayles film which might as well be titled George Bush Must Go.
Demme avoids copying the most memorable moments in the first film - he re-imagines the brainwashing procedure, for instance, and drops the Queen of Diamonds device completely. He avoids stepping on Frankenheimer's toes, and replaces famous bits of business (the 360-degree, presto-change-o dream sequence, for example) with his own cinematic bag of tricks. He and cinematographer Tak Fujimoto frequently stage dialogue scenes with both participants looking straight into, or just to the side of, the camera. It's a Demme signature move, but it hasn't worked this well - drawing us into the mystery Denzel Washington is trying to solve - since Silence of the Lambs.
Demme also loves to fill his movies with hip little cameos - casting B-movie legend Roger Corman as a political bigwig, Al Franken as a network reporter, and physical comedian Bill Irwin as a Scoutmaster. Here again, the director's habits serve him well. Surrealist songwriter Robyn Hitchcock plays a shady figure who pops up throughout the story, and the musician's well-cultivated weirdness adds subtly to the film.
Directorial flourishes, political commentary, and film history aside, The Manchurian Candidate is still a gripping thriller with a top-flight cast. Audiences needn't know John Frankenheimer or Robyn Hitchcock to enjoy its thrills, and they needn't share Demme's politics to feel its chill. It's a great night at the movies, whether you think it strikes close to home or not. •
By John DeFore