The film that John Frankenheimer fashioned from Richard Condon’s “The Manchurian Candidate” in 1962 was one of the best political paranoid thrillers ever made, a brilliant takeoff on Cold War fears of a supposedly omnipotent communist menace that commingled elements of two films that wouldn’t actually appear until two years later–the nerve-wracking tension of “Fail Safe” and the satiric sharpness of “Dr. Strangelove.” With perhaps more zeal than good judgment, Jonathan Demme has chosen to update the tale of brainwashing, presidential politics and assassination to the present day. The result is certainly better than the director’s last remake of a classic–his misbegotten version of “Charade” called “The Truth About Charlie”–but it still can’t hold a candle to the original.
That’s certainly not the fault of the cast and crew. This “Candidate” is beautifully crafted and splendidly cast. Kristi Zea’s production design is impeccable, Tak Fujimoto’s cinematography is every bit as fine as one would expect, and working closely with ace editor Craig McKay, Demme keeps the jigsaw-puzzle plot reasonably clear while giving it kinetic energy. The cast is superb, too. Denzel Washington takes center stage in the old Frank Sinatra part as Ben Marco, the army major who comes to believe that his recollection of the heroism demonstrated by one of his fellow-soldiers in combat–the Gulf War this time, rather than the Korean conflict–might be a false memory planted for some nefarious purpose. He’s terrific in the role, which allows him to show far greater range than his “Training Day” turn did. Liev Schreiber is appropriately spooky in the old Laurence Harvey part of Raymond Shaw, the soldier whose medal-winning conduct Marco is suspicious about; he adds a weirdly sympathetic undercurrent to the creepy character that’s quite satisfying. Meryl Streep is positively serpentine as Raymond’s manipulative mother, a role earlier played with venomous glee by Angela Lansbury. And though Kimberly Elise never quite clinches matters as Rosie, the girl with whom Marco gets involved (Janet Leigh was the 1962 equivalent), and Simon McBurney does the oily villain bit too comfortably as the scientist the men see in their nightmares, the rest of the supporting cast is first-rate, from Jon Voight as a principled senator and Jeffrey Wright as a mentally-troubled survivor of Marco’s old squad to Ted Levine and Miguel Ferrer as army higher-ups and Bruno Ganz as an eccentric researcher who helps Marco at a difficult moment. (Cameos by Al Franken, as a reporter, and Roger Corman, as a party official, don’t register nearly as well.)
It’s not, however, in the execution that “The Manchurian Candidate” comes up short–it’s in the script by Daniel Pyne and Dean Georgaris. The fact that Pyne was responsible for “The Sum of All Fears” and Georgaris for “Paycheck” does not bode well, and in the event their take departs radically from the 1962 screenplay that George Axelrod so expertly fashioned from Condon’s book. To be sure, it’s a much slicker piece of work than Axelrod’s now seems–it has more of the big set-pieces demanded by contemporary audiences, puts the spotlight more directly on Raymond by making him the titular politician, and gives its star the big moment in the finale. But those changes, which many will think improvements because they give the picture a more conventional action-adventure feel, pale in the face of others. For one thing, the film almost completely dispenses with the rich vein of black humor that was so important a part of the earlier picture; even the political stuff here is fairly banal (it’s all grounded on the idea of puff-speech about terrorism, and the partisan divisions are muddled at best). But that’s partially the result of the narrative’s one essential, and unfortunately fatal, alteration–the jettisoning of the entire communist element. A dead ideology could hardly serve as the driving force behind a brainwashing plot designed to place a puppet in the White House anymore, of course, so Pyne and Georgaris had to find a substitute–and the one they’ve come up with is corporate power. Thus the “Manchurian” moniker now refers not to the Chinese region where the brainwashing was done, but to Manchurian Global–a gigantic equity fund whose tentacles extend into every significant area of life and government. (Much of the dialogue about the outfit consists of none-too-subtle reference to Halliburton, which is amusing in a rather sophomoric way. There’s even a throw-away line about the company privatizing the U.S. army–not too far-fetched, in light of current realities.) It’s not a fair exchange, though, first because the notion of a greedy multinational (whether fairly or not) is far less scary than that of a Marxist ideology on the march, but mostly because the idea that such a firm would need a convoluted brainwashing scheme to put a lackey in the White House comes across as absurd in the present political climate, when it’s abundantly clear that a corporate dupe can be installed in office by much simpler means, even in the absence of a brain suitable for washing. The alteration also means that the picture loses the Red-baiting McCarthyite senator played by James Gregory in the earlier version–one of Condon and Axelrod’s most delectable creations. Transforming Raymond’s mother into a senator whose warmongering and enthusiasm for the sort of governmental intrusions mandated by the Patriot Act would put Dick Cheney and John Ashcroft in the shade isn’t anywhere near as satisfying, even if Streep does seize on the opportunities it offers with gusto.
And then there’s the grand finale, the tension-filled assassination attempt, which is much altered from the first film. It isn’t just that the whole thing has been rearranged to allow for a much higher degree of heroism and self-sacrifice than in the far darker original, but that, in order to save the new shooter from the fate the old one suffered, the writers have concocted what amounts to an elaborate new conspiracy that we’re supposed to applaud–despite the fact that it constitutes as much a perversion of democratic process as Manchurian Global’s plot did, only in a “just” cause. And it puts the picture snugly within the parameters of the modern Hollywood blockbuster, distinguishing it sharply from Frankenheimer’s more idiosyncratic vision, which defiantly avoided playing to the crowd.
Perhaps those coming to “The Manchurian Candidate” for the first time will find Demme’s film, despite its logical shortcomings ands plot deficiencies, sufficiently exciting to merit their vote. But for those of us with fond memories of Frankenheimer’s classic, this “Candidate” can only be a distant also-ran.