Nobody plays solitaire in Jonathan Demme’s new rendition of The Manchurian Candidate, and I wondered why until I reflected on the meaning of the card game in the original 1962 film, wherein a brainwashed soldier was triggered to kill by the sight of the queen of diamonds. In 1962, red didn’t just mean blood; it meant commies, and the red queen was … well, let’s not spoil anything. Today, communism isn’t a big worry; terrorism is, and, for some of us, the bigger worry is a government that takes away our rights in the name of fighting terrorism and does deals with corporations that profit handsomely from military operations. Thus, in the remake, the puppetmaster is not Manchuria but Manchurian Global, a Halliburton-like outfit represented by three shady guys, including a stogie-waving Dean Stockwell.
How does the new Manchurian stack up to the old? For some, nothing can replace John Frankenheimer’s original, so far ahead of its time that it was considered a lurid paranoid fantasy until JFK was shot and the ’60s started getting weird and scary. Under Frankenheimer’s rock-solid direction, Frank Sinatra actually bestirred himself and gave a performance, and the script included many winking, cynical references to the way things really worked (such as the way the McCarthy-esque senator comes up with the magic number of 57 communists). Both films, I think, need to be viewed within the context of their times, and Demme’s Candidate is, if anything, more relevant to 2004 than Frankenheimer’s was to 1962 (in retrospect the older film seems more prescient than relevant).
After a few questionable moves (including his previous film, the flop remake The Truth About Charlie), Demme puts on his game face and remembers the instincts that led him to fortune and glory with The Silence of the Lambs. His Manchurian Candidate honors the original in every way — mainly by being its own reckless beast, powered by unstable, off-center camerawork (and many, many huge, staring-right-into-the-back-row close-ups). Demme’s filmmaking has lost none of its jazz, and some of the uglier moments — like the flashbacks and dreams, glimpses of medical mutilation and horror — rival the creep-out factor in Silence. His casting remains as quirky as ever, too; it’s a kick to see Demme regulars like Charles Napier, Tracey Walter, and even Robyn Hitchcock in an $80 million Paramount thriller opening in almost 3,000 theaters.
Denzel Washington takes the Sinatra role, as war veteran Ben Marco (this time it’s Desert Storm rather than the Korean War), who has been having odd dreams about a soldier in his unit, Raymond Shaw (Liev Schreiber, doing his best to out-icicle Lawrence Harvey). Washington is one of those actors Alfred Hitchcock would’ve loved — he projects decency and intelligence, so we believe him when he starts talking crazy, even when no one else does. Marco has doubts about Shaw’s heroic actions in battle, not to mention Shaw’s domineering mother (Meryl Streep, enjoying herself sinfully), who’s grooming him for the vice-presidency. Along the way, Marco encounters such oddities as skin implants, Jeffrey Wright as a stammering veteran with walls full of anguished scribblings, and Kimberly Elise as a supermarket cashier who might be overqualified for the job.
I can only hint and suggest from here, but suffice it to say that if you’ve seen the first Manchurian Candidate, you don’t know how the new one ends (I approve of the change, and it works well with the Oedipal subtext, which Demme and his writers ratchet up a bit). I don’t think the words “Democrat” or “Republican” are spoken in the film, but this is still likely the most electrifying political movie made in this country since Oliver Stone’s JFK (and yes, that includes Fahrenheit 9/11). What effect, if any, will it have on the presidential election? I don’t know, other than maybe making a few impressionable moviegoers scrutinize Kerry and Edwards, looking for the red queen behind Edwards. The not-very-subtle parallels to Halliburton won’t make Bush supporters happy, and the implication that politicians who talk the little-guy talk are really in thrall to the fatcats probably isn’t what the Kerry campaign wants people to muse on, either. Like the original, this Manchurian Candidate is an equal-opportunity troublemaker.