Jonathan Demme’s gutsy The Manchurian Candidate, which dares to rear its head just as the Democratic National Convention convenes in Boston, is the anti-Bush-administration movie for those who refuse to see Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 or Robert Greenwald’s Outfoxed because, well, they just ain’t Right. It’s less a remake of director John Frankenheimer’s 1962 original, about a brainwashed assassin out to make his mommy’s husband the president, than a reconceptualization in which the bad guys are both the politicians using fear to manipulate voters and the multinationals who use politicians to control the government. “Secure tomorrow” is the rallying cry of this movie’s villains, for whom the Constitution is as disposable as tissue and the never-directly-mentioned-but-always-referred-to PATRIOT Act is the most valuable weapon against evildoers promising another “cataclysm.” And the media serve as coconspirators: In Demme’s world, the audience consumes a nonstop feed of a Fox News Channel facsimile, where the government’s press releases are treated with the unquestioning reverence reserved for the Ten Commandments.
Demme’s movie still thrills and chills — effectively, too, since minor alterations to the plot deposit the movie at an altogether different finale than the one novelist Richard Condon and screenwriter George Axelrod posited. Demme opens his movie during the first Gulf War, as Bennett Marco (Denzel Washington, in the Frank Sinatra role) is leading his platoon into Kuwait during a routine recon mission. Among his soldiers is Sergeant Raymond Shaw (Liev Schreiber, channeling Laurence Harvey), the aloof son of a powerful conservative senator played by Meryl Streep. In eerie dream sequences that become occasionally grotesque flashbacks, we learn that the squad is ambushed and taken to a faraway base on a remote island, where men in white overcoats treat them to the Clockwork Orange special. Their brains are washed and implanted with mind-control devices that make them do horrible things to their own comrades. Of course, we already know this; we’ve seen the original. It’s how the filmmakers alter the inevitable that makes this Candidate a kick.
When they return to the States, Shaw is a war hero, given the Medal of Honor for saving his squad during the ambush. Marco and the men who survived, especially Jeffrey Wright’s disheveled Al Melvin, are racked by nightmares of what really happened. Marco, who has been promoted to major, has become a total disaster, living on nothing but ramen noodles and No-Doz, keeping his glasses together with masking tape, and finding no one within the Army to believe his story. Unlike Sinatra’s more heroic Marco, who sported a constant sweat mustache and found his marbles sooner than later, Washington has no allies save for dead men who can’t corroborate his tale. Demme and screenwriters Daniel Pyne and Dean Georgaris have turned a tragic hero into a desperate lunatic, to the point where we’re not even sure we can trust Marco’s memories of what happened during the war.
Schreiber, though, feels somehow more sympathetic and affable than Harvey, who always seemed to be made of steel and concrete. But his Raymond, a rising star oddly without ambition, is just a different brand of weirdo — likable, maybe, but still checked out from the neck up. Raymond is a liberal junior senator, and his mommy, Eleanor Prentiss Shaw, has bullied him onto his party’s ticket as the vice-presidential candidate. Though Streep’s playing the Angela Lansbury role as the overly affectionate mother with vile intentions, hers is a performance far, far from impersonation. Streep brings a whole new layer of creepy to the role, to the point of vamping her way into the campgrounds.
The whole movie is like that — a knowing smirk that grows into a real giggle the longer the movie rolls. The tittering begins before the movie does, with a song that serves dual purposes: Over the opening credits, Wyclef Jean performs an almost unrecognizable version of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s protest anthem “Fortunate Son,” a label bestowed upon the president by his detractors. If Fahrenheit 9/11 was Moore’s op-ed piece, this is Demme’s editorial cartoon disguised as frenetic thriller. The Commies of the original are long gone, replaced by the Corporation: Raymond is now the pawn of Manchurian Global, a multinational that employs renegade Evil Scientists to genetically modify fruit and turn grown men into mind-controlled vegetables. When the time is right, Raymond’s switch will be flipped, and the man who espouses “compassionate vigilance” will become someone for whom civil liberties are a thing of the distant past.
Demme, who is making a second career out of remaking classic movies, tweaks the original just enough to make this Manchurian Candidate feel wholly original; it’s like a great singer’s rendition of a hoary old standard. With its oddball cast, including Al Franken as a TV journalist, singer-songwriter Robyn Hitchcock as a corporate baddie, and Roger Corman as a politician, you might mistake it as one big goof, Demme’s throwing a party on the Paramount dime. But his retelling of the tale makes it as much a spiritual sequel to Alan J. Pakula’s The Parallax View as to Condon’s best-seller and Frankenheimer’s movie. But just as you feel the numbing, clammy clench of paranoia on your neck, you realize, nope, the grip is just the director’s attempt at tickling you to death. Demme’s movie had no right to work. It does, and then some.