Paranoia Strikes Deep

As The Manchurian Candidate creeps back into our lives

I've spent the past few months dreading The Manchurian Candidate, Jonathan Demme's remake of the outrageous political satire that was shunned by audiences back in 1962 but has been celebrated by critics ever since. John Frankenheimer's original was one of the most bracingly inventive American movies of the last 50 years, a witches' brew of Cold War paranoia, Freudian camp, hipster absurdism and a nihilism so subversive that it spooked even the film's star, Frank Sinatra, who helped keep it in the vault for nearly a quarter-century following its initial release. It would be impossible to recapture such far-out audacity, and Demme wisely doesn't try.

The new movie takes place in an exaggerated version of today's security-mad America, with suicide bombs blasting Denver and corporations pulling the puppet strings of political life. If that weren't scary enough, Army Major Bennett Marco (Denzel Washington) is caught in an even more terrifying nightmare. In the run-up to the 1991 Gulf War, he and his Army recon team got ambushed by the Iraqis and were saved by the derring-do of one Sergeant Raymond Shaw (Liev Schreiber), who guided them through enemy territory to safety. Or so Marco remembers. But can he trust his memory? Or did somebody brainwash his unit back in Kuwait?

To keep from completely losing it, Major Marco begins dogging Shaw, now a robotically liberal vice-presidential candidate pushed forward by his overbearing mother, conservative Senator Eleanor Prentiss Shaw (Meryl Streep). Marco's pursuit of Shaw plunges him into the phantasmagoric whorls of a conspiracy populated by a perky-mysterious supermarket clerk (the fine Kimberly Elise), a peacenik senator (Jon Voight, not acting loony for once) and a scientist pal, played by Bruno Ganz, who resembles an old toad happy to have been brought up, croaking, from the bottom of some dank, ancient well. Meanwhile, lurking in the background is the enigmatic business concern Manchurian Global—whose closest political ally is Eleanor Prentiss Shaw.

Although dulled by a soft-minded epilogue, The Manchurian Candidate marks a splendid return to form for Demme, a filmmaker I've rooted for ever since the 1970s, when idiosyncratic pictures like Handle With Care, Melvin and Howard and Something Wild held the fort of personal filmmaking against the invasion of infantile blockbusterism that made the 1980s the worst movie decade in American history. He was apparently knocked off balance by the success of that 1991 juggernaut The Silence of the Lambs, and followed it up with a pair of unimportant Big Important Films. While Philadelphia was distressingly conventional (it proved that gay people are human, too), the 1998 Oprah Winfrey vehicle Beloved took scads of chances but was crushingly dull—shocking from a director who'd cut his teeth making movies like Caged Heat and Crazy Mama. By the time Demme reached The Truth About Charlie, his 2002 remake of another '60s touchstone, you heard people whispering that maybe he'd lost his chops. But for all that film's faults, Demme wasn't really trying to redo Stanley Donen's Charade. He was trying to rethink it, give it a whole new spirit. Which is precisely what he pulls off in The Manchurian Candidate.

Frankenheimer's original movie was based on a 1959 best-seller by the late Richard Condon, a vivid pop novelist who wore his cynicism as jauntily as Sinatra did his fedora. Steeped in the anti-communist paranoia of the 1950s, Condon's novel both tapped into and sent up the Cold War hysterias of both left and right. The book was crazy-clever, and in adapting it, screenwriter George Axelrod (Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?, Lord Love a Duck) added whole new dimensions of lunacy. While Demme's version (written by Daniel Pyne and Dean Georgaris) preserves the story's original arc, it plays things much straighter—it's more thriller than send-up. Demme makes no attempt to mimic Frankenheimer's gaudy, Wellesian imagery or capture the hallucinatory wit of the original garden-party brainwashing scene. This Manchurian Candidate is consciously modeled on the Cinema of Paranoia spawned by the Nixon years, including The Parallax View, The Conversation, Three Days of the Condor and William Richert's Winter Kills (an underrated personal favorite, also based on a novel by Condon). Demme and photographer Tak Fujimoto ratchet up the sense of uncertainty and dread with looming close-ups of characters facing the camera as potentially sinister figures enter the background. We share Major Marco's edgy disorientation, a feeling captured by the movie's slyly ambiguous tagline: "Everything is under control."

The question, of course, is who's controlling whom? Without spoiling things, I can tell you that this new Manchurian Candidate portrays a corporatized America dominated by companies like Big-Mart, a chain that takes in trillions each quarter; a touch-screen voting company analogous to the real-life company Diebold; and, above all, Manchurian Global, which comes off as an unholy hybrid of Halliburton and the Carlyle Group. In such a world, politics is mere shadow play. It doesn't matter which party Raymond Shaw or his mother belongs to—Manchurian Global is a contributor to both.

With its timely references to terrorism and run-wild corporations, the filmmakers are clearly hoping to update the hell-raising spirit of the original, which gleefully punched America's hottest buttons—fear of the Reds' diabolical scheming and fear of McCarthyite extremism. But what seemed daring 40 years ago has become routine in our post-assassination, post-Vietnam, post-Watergate, post-Sept. 11 world. These days, heady cynicism is the culture given—the TV program 24 makes The Manchurian Candidate seem like All the President's Men. Because we already live in an era of nonstop political paranoia and conspiracy mongering, fiction must struggle to equal, let alone outstrip, reality. That's why this Manchurian Candidate's most relevant theme is its anxiety about brainwashing, a fear that makes perfect sense in an era of inescapable media messages, mood-altering drugs, and microchips implanted in the human body. (Indeed, nothing that befalls Major Marco proves nearly as disturbing as what happens to Jim Carrey's Joel Barish in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, where the brainwashing isn't political but personal—an assault on individual identity.)

Still, if Demme's version lacks the wallop of its predecessor, it is more likely to be popular with contemporary audiences, who will enjoy not only its labyrinthine twists but its stars' burnished professionalism. Although Washington can't rival Sinatra's jaded, nicotine-cured angst, he always relishes the chance to burst the mummy-tape of his physical perfection. As Major Marco, he gets to. He takes the trademark Denzel role (the genuinely righteous man), then has him walk the line between sanity and madness. When someone accidentally bumps him on the street, his ranting makes bystanders scurry away.

And yet he seems far saner than Raymond Shaw, the apparently emotionless hero-turned-politico who could all too easily become an unlikable cipher. That happened in the original, where he was played by dry-ice pretty boy Laurence Harvey. Shaw gets a better deal from Schreiber, whose bitter mien suggests inner torment and an elephant's memory for grievance. You can see why he shone as Hamlet. Playing Shaw as a welter of painful memories and bottled-up passions (Schreiber's small mouth accentuating his inability to express his real feelings), he brings nuance, even pathos, to a joyless man caged within the bars of himself.

He's been locked in there, of course, by his mother. When The Manchurian Candidate came out in the '60s, part of its iconoclasm lay in Angela Lansbury's garishly harsh portrait of star-spangled motherhood—apple pie laced with ground glass. Such domineering mothers have become a pop commonplace—reaching some sort of apotheosis in Nancy Marchand's Livia Soprano. No fool, Streep doesn't attempt to trump Lansbury's chilling turn as the maternal Queen of Hearts. Instead, she plays Eleanor Prentiss Shaw as an infinitely more cutthroat Liddy Dole or Hillary Clinton, a modern-day Lady Macbeth who schemes on behalf of the son she both idolizes and treats (to lift a line from Grace Paley) as the prize cut of beef in the meat locker of her heart. Although she spent much of her early career being asked to suffer in close-ups, Streep is an extraordinarily witty actress who can deliver a good line like a stiletto through the ribs. And her best lines capture what's always been fun about The Manchurian Candidate—our rollicking pleasure in its wickedness. There may be no more splendidly ruthless moment in a movie this year than when Senator Shaw explains the facts of life to her son. "The assassin always dies, baby," she says. "It's necessary for the national healing."

The Manchurian Candidate was directed by Jonathan Demme; written by Daniel Pyne and Dean

Georgaris, from the screenplay by George Axelrod, based on the novel by Richard Condon; produced by Scott Rudin and Tina Sinatra; and stars Denzel Washington, Liev Schreiber and Meryl Streep. Now playing countywide.

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