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Oeuvre: Demme: The Manchurian Candidate

Oeuvre: Demme: The Manchurian Candidate

Demme’s 2004 remake captures the atmosphere of modern America, a country that feels like it’s slowly collapsing in on itself.

With this year’s news cycle and the ongoing probe over Russia’s interference in our presidential election, a film like the original 1962 adaptation of Richard Condon’s novel The Manchurian Candidate feels prescient. That film followed Laurence Harvey as Raymond Shaw, a Korean War hero brainwashed by the communists to be a sleeper agent and programmed to be the perfect hitman for destroying the nation from inside. Frank Sinatra played his equally brainwashed commanding officer, Major Bennett Marco, the only man who suspects something is amiss. But Jonathan Demme’s 2004 remake, which takes more liberties with the source material than John Frankenheimer’s film, more closely captures the atmosphere of modern America, a country that feels like it’s slowly collapsing in on itself.

Demme’s take transports the war from Korea to Kuwait, with the film’s inciting mission taking place in 1991 before fast forwarding to a near future, implied to be 2008. The America described in news footage and background exposition more than resembles our own, with late capitalism causing irreparable fissures into our freedoms and divisive party politics taking precedent over the needs of citizens. Marco (Denzel Washington) takes his unit on a mission before the shit hits the fan and Shaw (Liev Schreiber) saves all but two of the men in their crew, coming home a war hero. But we never really see how the mission went awry. We just have Marco telling the story in present day to a group of boy scouts, intercut with a comically excessive action scene of Shaw saving the day. It’s not until a former squad mate (Jeffrey Wright) confronts Marco about his nightmares and Marco sees Shaw, now a senator, is chosen to be the Democratic Party’s vice presidential candidate, that he must accept something is amiss.

Frankenheimer’s version, and the novel that preceded it, was a product of the Cold War. The audience is alerted that things aren’t what they seem very early and the film’s first third takes a good chunk of time explaining the mechanics of Marco and Shaw’s brainwashing, establishing simple rules and boundaries for how the film’s sci-fi leap functions. It’s a little frontloaded, sure, but it ensures every plot machination that follows is suitably suspenseful, because we have a clear understanding of what has happened, even if no one else believes Marco yet. The audience knows more than the characters and the ambiguity lies within these men having to wrestle with their fractured understanding of their own reality. It feels very much like a traditional war or spy film taken one step outside of a grounded world, like a Rod Serling story with less moralizing.

But Demme’s take is almost the opposite. This version skips a lot of the setup and alters the details so that we follow Marco on his journey to get answers. That procedural element is more nebulous in separating fact from fiction, which intensifies the struggle of the characters, but makes the ongoing mystery more laborious for viewers. Even without having read the novel or seen the original film, much of the plot is pretty obvious from the outset, so doling out digestible bites of the backstory instead of just dispensing with it from the start makes for a very different film. Where the original was more about Soviet paranoia, this one seems explicitly concerned with the plight of our soldiers and the lasting effects of PTSD.

Demme furthers the kind of stylistic exploration he employed in The Truth About Charlie, again using confrontational POV shots in tense interactions and using zooms and camera movements to create an off-kilter world where there’s never sure footing. There is no big foreign scare here, as the enemies are no longer Korea and China, but a corporation called Manchurian Global. This gives Demme room to skewer the surveillance state, the glossy world of partisan politics, the omnipresence of bright advertisement imagery and the splintered fever dreams of war.

Where the brainwashing in 1962 was banal visually, using coded keywords and hypnosis, Demme’s remake offers a much more gadgety futurism at play. Frankenheimer frames the time the soldiers spent being reprogrammed like a blandly blocked children’s play, which makes the violence and intrusion so haunting. But Demme sets it all up with RFID chips and elaborate Total Recall machinery, showing, as always, that we’ve grown more afraid of ourselves and our inventions than of the outsider or invading force. The script fills the fringes with nauseating details of the post-9/11 world that still resonate today, but the primary thrust of the narrative is neutered and poorly built.

The three key performances, from Washington, Schreiber and Meryl Streep as Shaw’s bullying mother, are several leagues above the writing. Demme and Tak Fujimoto’s images, along with this ensemble powers a film full of thrilling ideas and engrossing emotions, are unfortunately tethered to an inferior screenplay that lacks the focus and forward momentum of its forebear.

This was the second and last time Demme remade a popular film before his death. While it was a more successful endeavor, his visual prowess as a storyteller was again thwarted by the writers he chose to work with. What could have potentially been an even more potent and probing exploration of our nation’s identity and the dark side of hero worship was undone by shoddy scripting and bloated editing, though it still makes for an interesting double feature with its predecessor and a truly depressing piece of cinema in light of our current landscape.

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