The Manchurian Candidate (2004)
Director: Jonathan Demme. Cast: Denzel Washington, Liev Schreiber, Meryl Streep, Kimberly Elise, Jon Voight, Vera Farmiga, Bruno Ganz, Jeffrey Wright, Simon McBurney, Robyn Hitchcock, Zeljko Ivanek, Obba Babatundé, Miguel Ferrer, Ted Levine, Anthony Mackie. Screenplay: Daniel Pyne and Dean Georgaris (based on the novel by Richard Condon and the 1962 screenplay by George Axelrod).
I watched the new Manchurian Candidate at a 10:00 screening, immediately after revisiting the 1962 film on DVD with a bunch of interested friends and colleagues. We all felt this was a fruitful and revealing way to watch both movies, and I recommend it wherever possible. (And thanks to Karen, Cathleen, Theo, Shirleen, and Susan for good talk and good times.)

Jonathan Demme's remake of The Manchurian Candidate was a film I wanted very much to like but couldn't. I tried. And everyone involved with the film has tried, but they haven't tried enough. Or, more specifically, they haven't tried in quite the right way.

As a matter of taste, I'm not one of those people who bristle at the notion of cinematic remakes, even when they are administered to bonafide classics. Consider how well live theater has always complemented original work with successive productions and re-interpretations of popular and time-honored material. Back in the early twentieth century, when the cinema was most closely connected to theater, you could do The Last of Mrs. Cheyney or The Letter or Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde repeatedly within the same generation, and no one seemed to mind. Sure, some remakes are unnecessary hack work, but when fertile foundations or intriguing actors or probing directors are involved, I'm in, whether it's Psycho or Cape Fear or Gloria or Dawn of the Dead. (I'm reminded of what William Burroughs said when an interviewer asked if he minded what David Cronenberg had done to his book Naked Lunch. "He hasn't done anything to my book," Burroughs said, pointing to a copy on a nearby shelf. "It's right there.")

The Manchurian Candidate, however deliciously executed by John Frankenheimer and company in its 1962 incarnation, strikes me as especially renewable material, particularly for filmmakers interested in retooling the essential plot and politics to suit new times. Channels of power, partisan politics, and the public shilling of electoral candidates have all changed profoundly in the last forty years, without abating any of the wide-scale paranoias that fuel the earlier picture (as well as the source novel by Richard Condon). The reason The Manchurian Candidate seems more eligible for reimagining than something like Coppola's The Conversation is that Frankenheimer's movie was much more archetypal, arguably less wired to the distinctive manias of its moment and rooted instead in grim psychologisms. The earlier script by George Axelrod manages to uncover not just one unconscious but two in the American political system: first, the veiled machinations by which deals are brokered and charades are mounted to make the rabid self-interest of an élite class palatable and cosmetic for the voting masses; second, the desperate longings and internalized traumas that make everyone, from average citizens to party operatives, vulnerable to exploitation, outward delusion, self-delusion, and moral compromise. Halfway through the Freudian century, The Manchurian Candidate found a totally undidactic, brilliantly stylized way to present American public life as an incest drama, a chronicle of the poor substitutes people find for what they can't have, a bleak Oedipal elegy for all the things you might be by now if your mother and father weren't also your rivals and if the leader-less vacuum of global politics didn't make everyone in the world act with the pugnacious, implacable fury of an abandoned child.

Jonathan Demme, then, is one of the few people alive who stands to gain something from what a depressed and depressing era of American life this is. Everything is in place for a new-fangled Manchurian Candidate to connect with critics and audiences and also to lodge some timely, well-earned shots at the present political establishment—and I don't just mean the Bush team in particular but the whole kit and kaboodle. New screenwriters Daniel Pyne and Dean Georgaris have had the chutzpah here to cast all the central intrigue within the upper echelons of the Democratic party, a ballsy move for left-leaning Hollywood and possibly annoying to some of The Manchurian Candidate's base audience. But allegations that the GOP has sold out its soul (as well as millions of individual souls) to corporate profit and self-perpetuation are so commonplace now as to be dramatically toothless. Moreover, since the new film's locus of anxiety has shifted from the Red bogeymen of Cold War entente to the fiberoptic wires of 21st-century megacapital—the "Manchuria" of the title is no longer a Maoist enclave but a financial conglomerate, Manchurian Global, vast to the point of abstraction—it would have been na´ve in the extreme to pretend that only one of America's parties is indentured to the big-money cabal. These introductory decisions, summed up in the movie's gorgeously terse double-entendre of a tagline—"Everything is under control"—are all signs of a movie working right on track.

But that movie never arrives, and the sad fact is, many of what could or should have been its greatest assets turn out to be its worst handicaps. Jonathan Demme, for one, is not the director he used to be, particularly as concerns temperament and focus. The stylist of Something Wild, even though the tone of that movie is utterly un-Manchurian, would have been an interesting match for this story, since it shows Demme drawing potent, inspired performances from his cast without ever quite letting them drive the movie. Something Wild puts forth a worldview, though it's not an especially political one: the piece finds its own contours for how the world works, how things add up, how people look, what they want from each other, and what they actually get. Once Jeff Daniels and Melanie Griffith hit the road, it's the road, not them, that calls all the shots.

Something Wild is not a perfect creation, and I'm not suggesting Demme's talent dissipated since, but his focus did seem to change in the 1990s. He suddenly morphed into a director of actors, and a rather hyper-attentive one, zooming in so closely to his performers' faces, it was as if he hoped to capture the movie as it seeped out of their pores. This approach worked quite well for the slightly overrated Silence of the Lambs and the harshly underrated Beloved, though Demme's newfound affinity for tightly personal drama arrived at the expense of some earlier gifts. Lambs and Beloved imply their social worlds through suggestive establishing shots, Jodie Foster's region- and class-coded accent as Clarice, Colleen Atwood's scrupulous post-bellum costumes. But Lambs never sees much of the world, Beloved falters in its third-act attempts to push its characters into the local landscape, and Demme's other film of that decade, Philadelphia, is nearly strangled by its bashful refusal to follow its schematic characters into the wider contexts of their lives. That movie hastily offers up a mosaic of urban vistas in the opening sequence, as though to compensate for the prim abstractions and detail-effacing neutrality of the rest of the picture, which could be happening anywhere, and which seems to happen nowhere beyond the confines of its safe, pre-packaged, vaguely apologist agenda. Demme remains one of Hollywood's most ardent liberals, but his aesthetics have become strikingly conservative. I admired the way in which his last film, the Charade remake called The Truth About Charlie, dedicated itself to evoking the polyglot, multiracial pluralism of contemporary Paris, until it became clear that this glimmer of the old Demme, who once rejoiced in the weird life of places and the wider swing of things, utterly couldn't remember how to shape a film out of all that distracted enthusiasm.

I'm spending a lot of time on what's happened in (or, more darkly, happened to) Demme's career, because this evolution almost totally unsuits him for The Manchurian Candidate. The movie offers him a chance either to marshal his old strengths and imbue them with his activist passions or else to produce another shambles of uneven focus and unintegrated ideas. What he creates, though hardly a Charlie-level disaster, still feels too much like chaos, and it's the wrong kind of chaos.

Ironically, I think the biggest mistake Demme makes is to surround himself with so many high-caliber performers, not just Washington and Schreiber but Meryl Streep in the reconfigured Angela Lansbury role, Beloved's Kimberly Elise as a mysterious stranger, Jon Voight as Streep's nemesis in the Senate, Jeffrey Wright as a haunted ex-soldier from Washington and Schreiber's unit, and potent character actors like Bruno Ganz, Zeljko Ivanek, Miguel Ferrer, and Ted Levine hanging around the edges. All of these performers are smart interpreters and bold screen presences, but The Manchurian Candidate, in all of its incarnations, is about political and global systems that exceed the reach of single minds and personalities. The people who stay ahead in this story are those who know how to manipulate the loopholes of a system which nobody fully understands, not even its prime beneficiaries; the story is a series of riffs on the idea that politics is a phantom menace that seems to have taken on a perverse, shadowy life of its own. That's why the relative blankness of Frank Sinatra, Laurence Harvey, and Janet Leigh in the first film works rather well. Sometimes they register as nothing but drones, hinting at motivation and personality more than actually conveying them, but these are exactly the convictions of the movie they're in. Frankenheimer's formal flourishes, the dizzying motifs of playing cards, the expressionist camera angles, the baroquely mannered dialogue, the unnervingly static photography, the insensible dreams about Floral Societies and brainwashing cults, totally overpower the characters and push the actors around a little, often making them secondary considerations in both visual framing and story development. It's a mood piece, albeit an exceedingly complicated one. The movie has to feel mightier than the sum of its parts.

The new Manchurian Candidate only occasionally musters this kind of force, most notably in its creative and image-saturated depictions of the news media and the climactic victory celebration (no longer, as in the original, a mere party convention). A kind of hysteria infects everything from the massive auditorium where balloons rain down to the pint-sized television screens, maggoty with sidebars and soundbites and trawling, teletype headlines. But the scenes that drive the movie are robustly actor-driven, and far too much so. If anything, Denzel Washington has been goaded out of his typically laconic style, which might have served this film much better, and Meryl Streep is given free reign to haggle and harangue. The acting isn't bad so much as it's doomed to be unconvincing, because as spookily unsettled as Washington is, and as floridly power-mad as Streep is, their affectations are never quite equal to the Olympian stakes of power the movie is trying to establish. These star-turns are so obsessively showcased that we're almost surprised when the script reminds us that these bigger-than-life-sized people are tiny dots in some grander scheme of things.

Maybe we're uncertain of this because Demme is, too. He keeps trying to carry us into the vaults of power, where senators struttingly parade the mercenary motives they take care to hide from the public. He keeps looking to uncover the methods by which international conspiracies operate, and this leads to a gargantuan confusion of causes and effects, an incomprehensible discourse of secret Mediterranean bunkers and covert files and genetically-engineered fruit and harem-scarum Asiatic women and implanted microchips and crates and crates of microwavable soups. Taken as a whole, these all come across not as symptoms of a larger, unseen system but as mismanaged emblems of an unresolved script confusion—the same slide of paranoia into incoherence that sank the over-conceptualized "master plot" in this summer's Stepford Wives remake. The Truth About Charlie, too, showed that Demme can't be trusted with a twisty plot; his own impulsive appetites get too tangled up with the swerves of the story, until you can't tell one from the other.

It is possible to imply a dastardly, invisible hand of corporate power without resorting to such a mishmash. Chinatown did it unimprovably. demonlover did it beautifully last year with an appropriately postmodern flavor, and Mulholland Drive did it surreally until the crucial point where that movie's interests changed. Heck, The Bourne Supremacy is doing a pretty bang-up job of meeting this task in the same multiplexes where The Manchurian Candidate is now screening. (Whatever "Treadstone" is, it scares me more than Manchurian Global does, which doesn't seem quite right.) So it's not that Demme or his screenwriters have impossible goals, but the degree of difficulty is high, and it seems to exceed their grasp. Perhaps Demme's inveterate humanism just can't bear to look The Manchurian Candidate's implications square in the face, a challenge that the cooler, more distanced Frankenheimer had an easier time meeting. The ambivalence that plagues the whole movie is further exposed in the climax, when the screenplay hustles to tie up loose ends and anatomize the breakdown of power, its headquarters raided, its most visible actors assassinated. Script and director have colluded to make one second-tier character from the first film more "empowered" in this one, which would be laudable in other circumstances but actually strips the figure in question of a key ambiguity. Another key role-reversal seems to darken our view of a main character only to lighten it again in due course. Manchurian '04 spends two hours drawing a police sketch of a fathomless evil and then, in a conclusion that is weirdly hopeful for all its surface melancholy, it proudly lets the good guys and gals nab the bad guys and gals. The finale of the film is as staunchly black-and-white as the premise was admirably gray.

All the proficiency in the world—Tak Fujimoto's typically element cinematography, an impeccable sound design, a heroically restrained and resolutely mysterious performance from Liev Schreiber as the decoy candidate—can't save a movie that lacks the guts to really go where it says it's going. The Manchurian Candidate, at bottom, has commitment problems. It is more serious and more diverting than your average summer release, but it isn't necessarily better, and that's what I wanted it to be. C+


Golden Globe Nominations:
Best Supporting Actress: Meryl Streep

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