John Frankenheimer’s “The Manchurian Candidate” was a red-hot political conspiracy thriller in 1962. In fact, it was so intense that the Frank Sinatra movie was pulled from release after John F. Kennedy was assassinated. This was the era of the Cold War when McCarthyism made Americans shiver from a threat of Communist infiltration on the highest levels of government.
Besides classic performances from Sinatra, Laurence Harvey and Angela Lansbury, the first “Candidate” had a razor-sharp screenplay by George Axelrod based on Richard Condon’s novel. The key to the intensity was the brainwashed war hero, Raymond Shaw (Harvey), whose monster of a mother Eleanor (Lansbury) was manipulating him to assassinate the President-elect. Because her empty-headed husband was the vice presidential candidate, the killing would catapult Eleanor into an all-powerful First Lady spot.
Using his considerable directorial talent, Jonathan Demme (“Silence of the Lambs”) has crafted a modernized remake with reverberations to the current political climate. With the Persian Gulf War substituted for ‘50’s Korean conflict, Demme uses topnotch actors to retool the Condon story to today’s post 9/11 paranoia.
Demme’s major mistake is muddying the waters by making Shaw (Liev Schreider) into the vice presidential candidate. He’s also an assassin, yet only part-time. Mother (Meryl Streep) remains a monster, but her husband is deceased and she’s stepped into his senatorial shoes. However, her Oedipal relation with her son carries over from the first film. When weak-willed Raymond was strictly the assassin, the story was clearly focused. Making him the potential President is a bit hard to believe. How could a brain-dead momma’s boy be the leader of the free world? On second thought… The Sinatra part of Captain Ben Marco (Denzel Washington) still involves troubled dreams of brain damaging by sinister forces. Now the mind control is done with implanted computer chips. Both movies begin with Marco, Shaw and other soldiers captured and overcome while on a mission during their respective wars. Though two of the soldiers die, the rest of the “lost patrol” are saved, thanks to Shaw’s bravery…or so it’s believed. Shaw’s supposed heroism results in his selection for the Medal of Honor, a setup for a career in politics.
Originally played by Janet Leigh, Marco’s girlfriend Rosie (Kimberly Elise) is updated as a FBI operative, which adds a nice twist to the intrigue. Jon Voight portrays the liberal senator, whose daughter competes with Monster Mom for Raymond’s affections. The first film had robot Raymond coolly dispatch them with a silencer, which was far more chilling than Demme’s death by kayak.
The most effective reversion involves the word, “Manchurian.” Frankenheimer and Condon used it as a reference to the Korean/Chinese mind controllers. In Demme’s production, the enemy is Manchurian Global, a multi-national defense conglomerate, much like the actual Carlyle Group, which is connected to the Bush family.
Are ruthless conglomerates really ruling the world? Is the world being manipulated by a vast right-wing conspiracy as new “The Manchurian Candidate” and Michael Moore’s “Fahrenheit 9/11” seem to be saying? Or, is Hollywood just out to fuel our fears by pumping up paranoia? It should be noted that ultra liberal comedian-turned-author-turned-radio personality Al Franken keeps popping up in the current “Candidate.” Adding to the confusion is Meryl Streep looking like Senator Hillary Clinton, while behaving like Lady Macbeth. Then again, maybe Demme’s on to something.
Still, “The Manchurian Candidate” is offers food for thought in a time of political turmoil. See it and try to unravel the mystery. Then, take a crack at the real world. Good luck.