The Manchurian Candidate, directed by John Frankenheimer in 1962, is a chunk of American history and, on paper, Jonathan Demme’s new version seems the most superfluous remake of a pop classic since Gus Van Sant’s shot-for-shot Psycho; on the screen however, it’s something else.
Slick yet somber, Demme’s Candidate lacks the wicked, giddy insolence of its predecessor. Despite a few jokes, the tale of a programmed “sleeper” assassin, a high-level political conspiracy, and an election-year coup is not primarily played for gleeful dark comedy—there’s a grim, even brutal, quality to the craziness. Recalling Alan Pakula’s post-Watergate, crypto-Manchurian remake The Parallax View almost as much as Frankenheimer’s original, the ambience is moody rather than cartoonish. The 1962 movie was an uncanny vision of the Kennedy era; it remains to be seen how closely Demme’s much-hyped version, strategically timed to open the day after John Kerry’s nomination, will reflect the nation’s state of mind.
Those familiar with the 1962 Candidate—which had the distinction of opening on the tensest day of the Cuban Missile Crisis and, despite the seemingly indestructible urban myth, was a box-office hit—will be less surprised than amused by Demme’s update. The bogus military hero Raymond Shaw (Liev Schreiber) and his commanding officer Ben Marco (Denzel Washington) have their brains washed by the enemy not during the Korean War but Operation Desert Storm; it isn’t Shaw’s stepfather who is a vice-presidential candidate but Shaw himself, and his monstrously Machiavellian mother (Meryl Streep) is not a behind-the-scenes player but a senator from New York. (The resemblance some observers have found between Streep’s fast-talking steel magnolia and Hillary Clinton has far more to do with fear of Clinton than Streep’s witty performance.)
There is no McCarthy-like demagogue in the remake—or rather, demagoguery has been dispersed and built into the workings of the national entertainment state. Similarly, the Communist villains are replaced by Manchurian Global—part Halliburton, part Carlyle, part Parallax Corporation. Coup d’état has been reformulated as “regime change,” and there’s a red-meat evocation of “the first privately owned and operated vice president of the United States.” Paranoia is more orchestrated, with a steady background of terrorist and counter-terrorist chatter and a sense of constant surveillance, as patriotic pageantry is even more hysterical and Pavlovian.
Demme, who works a clever permutation on the original ending, is more than capable of doing the thriller thing—even with material that will strike a good percentage of his audience as familiar. As an intelligent genre flick, the movie plays to his strengths. His direction of actors has never been better. Streep’s character is a wholly autonomous creation, while both Washington and Schreiber give more emotionally nuanced and richly neurotic performances than Frank Sinatra or Laurence Harvey (although Schreiber is unable to top the latter’s sheer unpleasantness). And Kimberly Elise actually makes sense of Janet Leigh’s surreally inconsequential part. Indeed, following a dozen years of docs, light comedy, and p.c. weepies, Candidate represents Demme’s best dramatic filmmaking since The Silence of the Lambs.
Perhaps coincidentally, Silence of the Lambs was itself part of an earlier Gulf War culture. Released in the midst of Desert Storm, it was a bona fide phenom—passionately embraced by critics and audiences alike. (As pointed out at the time by a skeptical Jonathan Rosenbaum, the mass fascination with the monstrous Hannibal Lecter was an evident displacement for a nation then waging the most sanitized war in human history: Rosenbaum reminded Lecter’s critical fans that “we’re currently killing without compunction at a far greater rate than all the real serial killers in our midst combined.”) In a way, the new Candidate represents the return of the Lambs‘ repressed—madness is real and it exists in the middle-American heart of darkness. In that movie too, a female senator found her child on the demon’s altar.
Although the original Candidate was an anthology of Cold War anxieties, it fulfilled its prophetic mission with the election-altering shootings of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy in 1968, and George Wallace four years later. These days, however, government through the strategic elimination of political leaders is no longer an issue. Nor is the construction of history’s secret agent. Thus, the most retrograde aspect of the new Candidate is the use of the old-fashioned José Delgado–type brain implants—even if Washington’s discovery of one does afford Bruno Ganz’s resident behaviorial scientist a hilarious line: “These are only theoretical.”
As blatant and odious as the current cabal may be, it is hardly the nation’s first bought-and-paid-for political leadership. As demonstrated by Homeland Security’s blandly issued threat of a cancelled election (timed, as many noted, to upstage the naming of John Edwards) and the terror alerts that are certain to figure in the upcoming campaign, it’s not the assassins who are being programmed with sinister microchips—it’s the body politic.