High on the list of things that probably didn’t need remaking is John Frankenheimer’s best film, The Manchurian Candidate.
Of course, the same might be said of Stanley Donen’s Charade, as from it we got Jonathan Demme’s much maligned last film, The Truth About Charlie. Now, as one of the few critics who genuinely admired Charlie as a quirky homage to the French New Wave movement of the early 1960s, I was prepared to give Demme his due as someone who might have good reason for wanting to remake another classic. I’m not sure he’s quite justified the idea of Candidate remake on a thematic basis, but he has made a fine thriller that, at long last, has pulled Denzel Washington out of his rut (of indifferent vehicles and by-the-numbers performances). And for that alone, Demme deserves major thanks.
The big difference between the 1962 original — which I watched for the first time since I was a mere beardless youth only the night before I saw the new version — and Demme’s updated remake is one of emphasis: The first is a political thriller, the second a political thriller.
Though Frankenheimer’s Candidate doesn’t let the left completely off the hook, his slant is definitely leftist. The main target of his film’s chilling satire is the McCarthy-era witch-hunt practices, where anyone who disagreed with the hard-line right was slapped with the label of “communist.” Frankenheimer’s film finally suggests a conspiracy between the McCarthy right and communism — or at least that the “communist threat” was partially manufactured for political purposes.
Demme’s film takes a different tack when it leaps ahead to the present day. Lacking the same kind of deliberate target, Demme’s version of the story presents both its villains and their motivations on a more shadowy basis (though the sentiments are clearly still on the left-wing side of the scale). Certainly the reasoning for the conspiracy is more mundane: simple greed. As a result, there’s never anything in Demme’s film that’s quite as chilling as Angela Lansbury’s assertion that she’s talking about a kind of absolute power “that will make martial law look like anarchy.” That same character in the new film — played by Meryl Streep — is perhaps even more detestable, but she’s lost some of the edge of wild-eyed fanaticism.
At the same time, Demme’s remake does up the personal terror of its main character, Ben Marco (Denzel Washington). In the original film, Marco (Frank Sinatra) is not only far less a basket case than his newer incarnation, but he’s backed up by — and working as an agent for — the United States government, to try to get to the bottom of what happened to his men and himself 10 years earlier in Korea. The new Marco is just this side of a nervous breakdown — popping No-Doz in order to stay awake and avoid his horrific dreams, as if he’s some variant on a teen in one of the Nightmare on Elm Street pictures. Likewise, he seems to be totally on his own.
Demme’s approach is to show a more intimate terror, obvious from the outset in the claustrophobia the director creates, with most shots in close-up and settings that would not be out of place in a horror film. (The original Candidate was more expansive and took place in a largely realistic world.) The very nature of the dreams being suffered by the men is more traditionally horrific in the remake — and, in fact, would also not be out of place in a horror film. This new tack is a plus in terms of surface creepiness, but it’s not as unsettling as are the more formal dreams of the original.
Yet in one instance, the new film is surprisingly less gruesome than Frankenheimer’s (though it’s easy to see why Demme chose to downplay the grisly nature in which one of the soldiers was killed, since the killer has been changed to Marco.) Otherwise, the plots remain about the same — up until the needlessly complicated finale. However, the Korean War has been changed to Desert Storm, the villains have been privatized and the original film’s secret compound in Manchuria (where the captured soldiers are brainwashed) has been relocated, with the movie’s title explained by having the bad guys head up a corporation called Manchurian Global (think Halliburton).
As before, the central question is just what has happened to the soldiers, and what the point behind it all is. One significant change, though, lies in updating Mrs. Iselin (Lansbury) to Sen. Eleanor Prentiss Shaw (Streep). In both cases, she’s the overprotective (among other things) and power-greedy mother of Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey in ’62, Liev Schreiber now). But in Frankheimer’s version, she was afforded a second husband, Sen. Iselin (James Gregory), who’s an alcoholic mouthpiece (obviously modeled on Sen. Joe McCarthy) for her ambitions, and can never remember exactly how many communists he has “proof” of being in the State Department. Well, there’s no need for an intermediary these days, so Eleanor gets to be the whole show. I’m not convinced this move is entirely effective, since it robs the character of the key to her personality as a seasoned puppet master.
The characterization is further lessened by the Demme film’s rewritten ending, which balks at the most shocking thing Eleanor does as a mother in favor of something more soft-centered. It’s a little ironic that an R-rated movie from 2004 should feel the need to downplay things that must have been tough to get past the censors in 1962.
Regardless of the changes and the lack of a solid thematic core, Demme’s film more honors the original than not, and is one of the most intelligent movies of the summer. It also boasts three dynamic performances — by Washington, Streep and Schreiber — that alone make it a must-see. But it’s a must-see that comes with a suggestion: Rent or buy the beautiful DVD package of the original that just came out. Seeing both films is really the way to go.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke