The Manchurian Candidate first published (in a slightly different version) by Movie Gazette, 11 December, 2004
John Frankenheimer’s The Manchurian Candidate (1962), based on Richard Condon’s 1959 novel of the same name, was a bleak, hallucinatory conspiracy thriller about a soldier who returns a decorated hero from the Korean War, but has in fact been brainwashed to become a sleeper assassin at the heart of the American political system. Released during the Cuban Missile crisis when Cold War paranoia was at its peak, and withdrawn from circulation a year later when the all-too-real assassination of President John F. Kennedy proved too close to the film’s fictional premise for comfort, The Manchurian Candidate tapped so deeply into the anxieties of early sixties America that it was not deemed safe for re-release there until a full quarter century later. Any attempt to remake a film so firmly rooted in its own times would seem doomed to failure from the start – and if The Truth About Charlie (2002), the recent, undistinguished retread of Stanley Donen’s Charade (1963), is anything to judge by, Jonathan Demme might seem hardly the ideal director to bring 1960s classics into the twenty-first century.
Yet for all this, Demme’s new version of The Manchurian Candidate is one of the best and most intelligent film remakes in years. Writers Daniel Pyne and Dean Georgaris have remained faithful for the most part to the plot dynamics of the original, while bringing its political and cultural references right up to date. The rat-smelling protagonist Major Ben Marco, originally played by Frank Sinatra, can now, in a post-Civil Rights era, be a black man (the ever excellent Denzel Washington); his platoon went missing not in the Korean conflict but in the lead-up to the first Gulf War; Pavlovian brainwashing has given way to neural implants; this time the murderous puppet Raymond Shaw (Liev Schreiber) is also a vice presidential candidate, while his over-affectionate mother (played by power-dressing, power-acting Meryl Streep as a right-winged Hillary Clinton) does not merely manipulate from the wings but is now herself an influential senator; and the sinister group behind the plot is not a Chinese communist cadre but a multinational corporation called Manchurian Global (clearly modelled on Halliburton and the Carlyle Group).
Where the original presented its often unhinged events in austere monochrome, Demme introduces an MTV-styled hyperreality, in which Marco’s experiences are cut at a frenetic pace and punctuated by the almost constant intrusion of media chatter. The Manchurian Candidate, it would seem, is once again very much a film of its own times, leaving viewers – for the second time – with the unnerving sense that its events are at the same time absurdly impossible and all too plausible. After all, the world really is run by multinationals (isn’t it?), many politicians do seem like mindless robots (don’t they?), and we are all brainwashed by the media (it is happening to you right now).
Of course, part of what made the original film so effective was the (then) uniqueness of its plot, and the disorienting manner in which it was allowed to unfold – and no matter how much Demme might try to repeat these tricks, they inevitably lose the element of surprise second time round. Yet what is really surprising, even shocking, about this remake is what it says about who we were, who we are, and just how little progress we have made in the interim. Despite a certain George Bush Sr promising back in 1991 that the Cold War had been forever replaced with a New World Order, his son‘s dubious War on Terror has taken the world right back to the same old Cold War fear and paranoia that prevailed when Frankenheimer’s version of the film first appeared – which is precisely why The Manchurian Candidate still manages to be as freshly frightening today as it was over forty years ago.
In keeping with the lurid sensationalism of The Manchurian Candidate, there is a cameo from Roger Corman, who had also given Demme his first directing breaks with Caged Heat (1974), Crazy Mama (1975) and Fighting Mad (1976) – and if this remake seems to soft-pedal on the ending of Frankenheimer’s original, the bleakness is still there to be found if you pick long enough at some of its still knotted threads. After all, this of all films should implant itself into your brain and take up residence there.
strap: While not superior to the original, Jonathan Demme’s paranoid conspiracy psycho-thriller is still a superior remake.