30 Minutes on The Manchurian Candidate

Jonathan Demme’s 2004 political thriller “The Manchurian Candidate,” about a brainwashed war veteran who becomes an assassin, underwhelmed audiences and critics during its original run, maybe because it’s a remake of a 1962 classic that had enjoyed a hugely successful re-release less than two decades earlier, vaulting it out of cult classic status and into the canon. Demme was certainly filling big shoes by directing his own version of a film regarded as the great John Frankenheimer’s masterpiece. But from the opening credits sequence—a laid-back, almost documentary-styled account of a group of infantry soldiers during the 1991 Gulf War playing cards in the back of an all-terrain vehicle—you can see that Demme and his collaborators aren’t in this to one-up the king. For all its uncharacteristic (for Demme) visual, musical, and editing razzle-dazzle, a times verging on Oliver Stone-style sensory overload, this is another Demme excursion into radical empathy. It replaces the original’s corrosive satire with a sensitive, at times despairing portrait of people losing their autonomy, made to dance like marionettes by masters too sneaky to identify and too strong to attack head-on.

Denzel Washington, who anchored Demme’s 1993 drama “Philadelphia” and has been a familiar face in military thrillers (including “The Siege” and “Courage Under Fire“), stars as Captain Bennett “Ben” Marco, commander of an abducted and brainwashed Gulf War combat unit that included Lt. Raymond Shaw (Liev Schreiber). Ben comes to believe that something is off about his own sense of what happened overseas, and hopes that Raymond can help him unlock the mystery. 

Perhaps assuming that anybody seeing this film will have already Googled the original, the filmmakers junk any pretense of mystery and quickly establish that the abducted soldiers are pawns in a shadowy conspiracy. The goal is to transform Raymond, a stick-in-the-mud officer and mediocre soldier, into a Congressional Medal of Honor winner by fabricating heroic details about his war service and having the men in his unit robotically repeat them; wait a few years; then plant Shaw (who has become a Congressman after the war) on the vice presidential ticket of a major political party. 

The original film built a layer cake of anxiety and fear atop Raymond’s phony war record, making him a pawn in an right-wing, McCarthy-esque scheme that somehow involved actual Russian and Chinese operatives. The bad guys here are more earthbound: a giant military contractor that’s basically Halliburton, a company deals in engineering, petroleum, mercenary services, military prison cells, internment camps, and other goods and services related to war. In 2003, the company was awarded a $7 billion, no-bid Iraq War contract despite the fact that the sitting US Vice President, Dick Cheney, had been on the company’s board of directors just three years earlier. A similar but much larger company in the film, Manchurian Global, appears have its tentacles in every part of the world economy, including journalism (exposition is often conveyed via snippets of inflammatory right wing “news,” on a cable channel that’s blatantly modeled on then eight-year-old Fox News Channel).

Although the film loses suspense and mystery by giving us the gist of the story up front, it gains dramatic power. Front-loading plot lets it concentrates on what happens to the major characters psychologically and emotionally as they try to prove what they know is happening to them, then expose the wrongdoers. It’s a rough, often tragic road from the get-go. Ben is a working class guy who—like the other survivors of a unit decimated by suicides and mysterious deaths—seems to be drifting through life, getting along as best he can, but often wondering why he can’t seem to get anything meaningful accomplished and keeps having the same dream every night. Raymond is living a more posh, shielded life—he’s the only son of former senator Eleanor Prentiss (Meryl Streep, channeling Hilary Clinton by way of Lady Macbeth), and has been groomed since birth to do his mother’s bidding—but he’s a wreck as well, floating through life with a pasty, sad grin, and trying to do a convincing impression of a person who can mingle at a party without wanting to throw up.

Although the movie’s first obligation is always to surprise and delight us and keep the story moving along, we immediately grasp that Demme, as usual, is more interested in the characters and their struggles. What ensues is a journey into the heart of madness, exposing a secret cabal that manipulates world events by presenting lies as truth; but Demme and company never lose track of the suffering inflicted on the individuals unlucky enough to be marked as cast members in a global drama whose playwrights remain unseen. Demme’s sure hand with a large ensemble has rarely been stronger. In addition to Washington and Schrieber’s heartbreaking work as traumatized men bonded by abuse, the film boasts a standout villain turn by Streep as a political powerhouse-turned-stage mother from Hell (complete with a delightful witchy cackle and many inappropriate glances at her onscreen son). And the supporting cast is stacked with character actors who have anchored smaller films, including Dean Stockwell, Miguel Perez, Charles Napier, Bruno Ganz, Ann Dowd, and Kimberly Elise (as a new version of Rosie, the character played by Janet Leigh in the original). 

The film has a rare sense of real-world New York atmosphere, particularly when contrasting the pampered hotel suites and four-star restaurants of whitest, richest Manhattan with the grit and noise of black, working-class neighborhoods in Brooklyn where Ben spends much of his time sussing out the facts. The movie is also unusually attentive to the lived details of post-traumatic stress disorder, in particular the obscene images that war sears onto the brain, and the sense of disconnectedness and loneliness that afflicts combat veterans. Their poster child is another man from Ben and Raymond’s unit, Cpl. Al Melvin (Jeffrey Wright). He appears at the start of the tale, an accusing specter in the vein of Jacob Marley in “A Christmas Carol,” head oddly averted, trudging along as if burdened by invisible chains. His haunted stare (one of the best uses of Demme’s patented looking-right-at-you closeups) challenges Ben to look beyond the official story that he’s been compulsively repeating. In contrast to the typical “hero’s progress” narrative, as well as the “detective pieces together the mystery” format, Ben’s mission to expose the truth and force others to validate it turns him into another marginalized, discredited crank, making him less powerful rather than more confident as the truth comes into view. 

There’s an implied racial and class critique embedded in this version of the story, even though Demme is much too subtle to shine a spotlight on it. This is a film about who has power and why they’re able to keep it. As the rumpled, muttering, increasingly desperate black man starts intruding on the margins of the more powerful white man’s existence, even showing up unannounced at his campaign headquarters in New York, he starts to seem like another incarnation of Ben’s barely functioning war buddy Al, whose journals and apartment wall are festooned with images and text that try to impose order on the chaos of his experience. There are journalistic accounts of conversations; expressive phrases scribbled down without context; fragments of what might be poetry; beautiful/hideous line drawings of extraordinary violence committed at close quarters, even images that seem inspired by H.P. Lovecraft fiction or David Cronenberg movies (such as a man’s head obscured by tentacles that seem to have sprouted from his neck like palm fronds). Rarely has the folkloric phrase “any black man who isn’t paranoid is crazy” been more vividly illustrated by a big-budget Hollywood movie.

The sense that reality is cracking open to reveal a hidden world of evil and madness comes through in the filmmaking. If the original was an unwitting early prototype for the subgenre known as the paranoid thriller—which hit its peak in the 1970s with classics like “The Parallax View,” “Three Days of the Condor” and “All the President's Men“—Demme’s “Manchurian” remake feels like a culmination of everything that filmmakers learned while working in that format over four decades (including Stone, whose “JFK” and “Nixon” are clearly influences here). Demme, screenwriters Daniel Pyne and Dean Georgaris, regular cinematographer Tak Fujimoto (in his last Demme credit), and editors Carol Littleton and Craig McKay work to create an experience that feels elusive and subjective (unreliable) even as it delivers the periodic story nuggets that mass audiences require (though not enough, apparently; the movie was a box-office dud). The editing often cross-cuts between Raymond and Ben’s stories, to establish that they’re both pawns in the same wicked scheme and have been messed with in similar ways. Demme tilts the camera and cut at odd moments to disorient the audience, and his postproduction team fills the soundtrack with overlapping dialogue and music cues that compete with each other (the score often plays over a song that characters hear at a party or in a crowded restaurant or bar, so that you can’t focus on either piece of music and start to feel anxious and attacked). 

The totality puts across the idea that modern life is so packed with information/data/noise/images—all coming at us at once, like it or not—that we’re teetering on the brink of derangement at all times anyway, so it might not be that tough to nudge someone like Raymond or Ben off the cliff and into the canyon if your goal was to break and remake them. 

The film only really falters in its final few minutes, a denouement that feels at odds with the generally bleak yet compassionate tone of the rest of the story. If the rest of the picture presents the characters’ experiences as an existential struggle in which you have to just do the best you can even if you know you’re overmatched, the ending retreats into “all’s well that ends well” hopefulness. Considering how vividly “The Manchurian Candidate” has depicted the treacherousness of 21st century life until that point, the final pivot into conventionality feels like a lie we’ve been commanded to imbibe and repeat, like the abducted soldiers from Ben and Raymond’s old unit chanting in unison about an event that never happened.

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