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Demme’s New ‘Manchurian Candidate’
a Taut Thriller

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Demme’s New ‘Manchurian Candidate’ a Taut Thriller
 
by Jeremy Mathews

“The Manchurian Candidate”
Paramount Pictures
Directed by Jonathan Demme
Screenplay by Daniel Pyne and Dean Georgaris, based on the 1962 screenplay by George Axelrod and the novel by Richard Condon
Produced by Jonathan Demme, Scott Rudin and Tina Sinatra
Starring Denzel Washington, Meryl Streep, Liev Schreiber, Kimberly Elise, Vera Farminga, Jon Voight and Robyn Hitchcock

(out of four)

 

The first “Manchurian Candidate” was a searing indictment of the fearful hatred of HUAC and other freedom-limiting participants in the anti-communist movement, swiftly arguing that those who use their tactics have more in common with tyrannical communist regimes than those who called for more reasonable methods. Jonathan Demme’s new remake doesn’t make the same case against the corporations that want to control modern politics, but it does adequately explore the concept of executives manipulating politics in the name of making some money.

The hero, Major Ben Marco, whom Frank Sinatra portrayed in 1962 version, is in the skilled hands of Denzel Washington, who builds on a character who doesn’t know which part of his mind to trust. He remembers his “friend,” Raymond Shaw (Liev Schreiber), rescuing himself and most of his fellow soldiers in a Desert Storm combat mission that won Shaw the very exclusive National Medal of Honor. All those still alive remember Shaw with nothing but fondness, but the opening sequence shows that Raymond was completely inept at being friendly with his fellow soldiers, and the memory of his heroic rescue and warm friendship feels more scripted than experienced.

 
   

Marco’s doubts and nightmares are written off as stress disorders and effects of Gulf War Syndrome that seem destined to ruin his military career. But one of Marco’s fellow soldiers, much further gone mentally, has been having the same dreams.

The film begins at a political convention (the event where the original climaxes) for an unidentified political party that looks like the Democratic one based on a map of where they need to pick up electoral votes. Meryl Streep plays Senator Eleanor Shaw, whose war hero son Raymond is now a congressman who she pushes into the nomination for vice president. (Raymond’s step father, the veep candidate from the first film, isn’t present here.) Eleanor argues for Raymond’s nomination with a take-charge speech from Steep convincing them.

The story varies from the original film’s in several moments, which works to the film’s advantage. While the previous dynamics worked better in many moments, the new story is difficult to predict, with unknown elements leaving things uncertain. The target, not hit quite as heavily as the anti-communists of the 1962 film, is corporations that aim to control political leaders. Manchurian Global is a corporation whose contracted guide to troops (the great British singer Robyn Hitchcock, surprisingly creepy) appeared to knock out Marco before Shaw practiced his heroics. The idea that corporations control elected officials with generous campaign donations is common knowledge, so hypnosis is the next logical step.

 
   

Demme and production designer Kristi Zea also skewer the media’s and the political parties’ use of ridiculous graphics. At one point, the ticker below the screen begins quoting a speaker before he’s done speaking—a gag that almost loses its impact because cable news networks do it so often.

Marco’s love interest, Rosie (Kimberly Elise), played by Janet Leigh in the original, loses all the mystery and oddball dialogue of Leigh’s character. While Elise’s performance is fine, the film explains all the motives of a character who was great in the original precisely because we didn’t know for certain where she stood and what her motives were. Many of the remake’s weaknesses actually come from an eagerness to explain areas that the other film left unanswered.

The original book and movie are often credited with introducing the concept of brainwashing into mainstream culture. Now, the concept is familiar, and the process involves a series of TVs and pipes inserted into people’s heads.

John Frankenheimer’s direction of the original film is remarkable, with shots such as a 360 degree pan of a room that creates the confusion of location of the hypnotized troops. Demme is in top form in terms of creativity, and features several stunning storytelling moments. The most economic storytelling of the year may be in one shot and a sound that morphs a school bell and something else.

Demme surrounds himself with a skilled crew that he knows from previous films. Cinematographer Tak Fujimoto plays with reflections in lighting . Editors Carol Littleton and Craig McCay create a steady pace and enforce the feeling of paranoia.

And the acting is dead on. Every time Marco and Shaw are on screen together, there’s a dazzling hypnotic feel created by the performances and the filmmaking. In one scene, Marco visits Shaw in his campaign headquarters, and the background is the happenings of the office filtered through purple lights and distorted glass that feels a bit like a close-up of a TV screen. The camera hovers sideways and vertically on both characters’ faces, creating an uneasy motion to highlight the tension in the scene.

These elements all create one of the year’s most exciting thrillers. Even if memories of Frankenheimer’s film weigh down some of the story choices and place high expectations, Demme and his cast and crew have crafted an exciting cinematic work.

jeremy@red-mag.com

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