The Manchurian Candidate is Jonathan Demme's second attempt to update a classic Cold-War thriller. Two years ago, in The Truth About Charlie, he tried to drag Charade, Stanley Donen's suave Hitchcockian romance, into the messy, multicultural modern world, an admirable effort that unfortunately did not yield a very enjoyable movie, in spite of the charms of Thandie Newton.
This time, using John Frankenheimer's original adaptation of Richard Condon's novel as a touchstone rather than a template, Demme has been more successful. Not only has he made a political thriller that manages to be at once silly and clever, buoyantly satirical and sneakily disturbing, but he has recovered some of the lightness and sureness of touch that had faded from his movies after The Silence of the Lambs.
Some of the fun of his retrofitted Candidate, which opens with Wyclef Jean's bracing version of John Fogerty's Fortunate Son, comes from its playful acknowledgment of -- and frequent departure from -- the first version, which was released in 1962, just in time for the Cuban missile crisis. The very first scenes peek in on a long, raucous game of poker, and fans of Frankenheimer's movie may anticipate the fateful appearance of the queen of diamonds. But this, like other winking evocations of the old Candidate, is a tease.
The game Demme and the screenwriters, Daniel Pyne and Dean Georgaris, are playing involves a different set of strategies and symbols, as well as altered stakes.
The first Manchurian Candidate was an exemplary piece of liberal paranoia, imagining the nefarious collusion between foreign, Communist totalitarians and their most ferocious domestic enemies, a conspiracy of the political extremes against the middle. That film, which climaxed at the 1956 Republican convention in New York, looked back from Camelot at an almost-plausible alternative history with a mixture of alarm and relief. The center, in the solid person of John F. Kennedy's pal Frank Sinatra, had held.
Directed by: Jonathan Demme
Starring: Denzel Washington (Ben Marco), Meryl Streep (Eleanor Shaw), Liev Schreiber (Raymond Shaw), Jon Voight (Senator Thomas Jordan), Kimberly Elise (Rosie), Jeffrey Wright (Al Melvin), Ted Levine (Colonel Howard), Bruno Ganz (Delp), Simon McBurney (Atticus Noyle), Vera Farmiga (Jocelyn Jordan) and Robyn Hitchcock (Laurent Tokar)
Running time: 130 minutes
Taiwan Release: today
The new version, after a prologue in the first Persian Gulf war, unfolds at a time succinctly and scarily identified as "today," and proceeds from the nominating convention of a major political party toward a frenzied Election Night finale, feeding on an anxiety about the future that is neither exaggerated nor easily assuaged. Frank Sinatra's character, Major Ben Marco, is played by Denzel Washington, and this time Marco is not the cool, rational unraveler of a vast conspiracy, but rather one of its victims.
The public may be more
interested in identifying the perpetrators. Though the party in question is not identified, it does not much resemble the real-world party currently in power. In the movie the US is subject to terrorist attacks, which have become so routine that they are mentioned only in passing, and is fighting wars in small countries around the world.
The chief danger to the republic, however, emanates not from the extremes -- a fanatical foreign enemy combined with a zealous administration -- but from the center, from the moderate wing of the opposition party and its corporate sponsors.
In a smokeless back room at the convention, a venerable, liberal senator, played by Jon Voight (who does this kind of thing so often you may think he's playing himself), is dumped from the ticket in favor of Raymond Shaw (Liev Schreiber), a young New York congressman whose mother, Senator Eleanor Shaw (Meryl Streep), is a formidable power broker and a tireless promoter of her son's career.