Opening in the same week as the 2004 Democratic National Convention, Jonathan Demme's remake of The Manchurian Candidate pulses with the same anti-Bush, anti-corporate fervor which roused a handful of American liberal filmmakers to get films in theatres this year. Michael Moore kicked things off with Fahrenheit 9/11, and Demme will be narrowly trailed by Spike Lee (She Hate Me) and John Sayles (Silver City). Something's in the air, and it's not love. Though no party affiliation is ascribed to any of the characters in this Manchurian Candidate, timely buzzwords and issues (from terrorism to touch-screen voting) creep through the paranoid thriller's narrow margins, by way of voice-over reportage, news-network scrolls, and newspaper headlines ("Mob Kills Muslim at Yale University," reads one).
John Frankenheimer's 1962 original remains a sweaty classic, in no small part for its insidious and all-too-credible sleeper-agent plot, told in an eerie tension of the director's documentary style and subjective flashback. As scripted by Daniel Pyne and Dean Georgaris from the George Axelrod screenplay and Richard Condon's novel, Demme's take imaginatively redistributes the action amongst the characters for modern times and suggests a more symbolic read. With Communists replaced by campaign-contributing corporations, who needs brainwashing to get a "sleeper" in the white house?
Wyclef Jean sings the relevant CCR tune "Fortunate Son" over the opening moments ("It ain't me, it ain't me/I ain't no senator's son/It ain't me, it ain't me/I'm no fortunate one"), and Demme plops us in 1991 Kuwait, where a Desert Storm unit answers to Captain Ben Marco (Denzel Washington, taking over the Frank Sinatra role for producer Tina Sinatra). An ambush leads to a chaotic battle; in the present day, the soldiers all remember the action the same way, with Sgt. Raymond Prentiss Shaw (Liev Schreiber) single-handedly saving the unit and earning the Congressional Medal of Honor. But the survivors likewise experience a recurring nightmare version of the incident, which doesn't jive with the official story.
Questioning this particular modern legend is a dangerous proposition, as Shaw is a leading contender to join his party's ticket as a vice-presidential candidate. Leading the charge for her son is Senator Eleanor Prentiss Shaw, played (with relish) by Meryl Streep as the next logical step forward for Angela Lansbury's misguided mother in the 1962 film. Raymond Shaw may well become "the first privately owned and operated Vice President of the United States" for campaign-contributing Manchurian Global (a defense-contractor corporation with more assets than the European Union), while trying to keep his smothering mother at arm's length; Eleanor Shaw, upon hitting the political glass ceiling, has knocked a few screws loose, but on she soldiers on behalf of her rising-star son. As in Condon's novel and the original film, their shudder-inducing relationship is a decidedly Freudian brew of illicit desire and gender-loaded resentment (Streep wonders aloud, "Where are all the men anymore?").
Whenever Demme is stirring the political p(l)ot, the film is heady entertainment, but the filmmakers stumble badly in their modernization of Condon's brainwashing conceit. In one of the 1962 version's most memorable scenes, Frankenheimer calmly transplanted Condon's notion of the zonked-out soldiers "seeing" a Communist conference as a garden-club party. Demme resigns himself to tired, post-X-Files theatrics; the pseudo-science eats away at what should be creepily credible. Like Frankenheimer, Demme also faces plot problems to allow constant mobility to obvious security risks (in this case, Marco, who's pegged as a Gulf War Syndrome nut by Shaw's campaign staff and an immediately apparent threat by the conspirators); George Axelrod's original script succeeded with clean narrative lines which allowed the actors to fill in the blanks, but Demme's poorly edited film finally loses its clarity in a too-ambiguous climax. Kimberly Elise plays Shaw's girlfriend, a woman with intriguingly murky motivation, but the character fails to absorb the plot twist shocks.
A notable improvement on Demme's Charade remake The Truth About Charlie, The Manchurian Candidate gets an "A" for effort, with exceptional casting choices, plenty of filmmaking skill (particularly Tak Fujimoto's stylish photography), and pointed political punditry ("Democracy is not negotiable," "Cash is king," "We've all been brainwashed"). The Frankenheimer faithful may enjoy the significant twists on the original, and the Demme faithful (if there are any by now) will chuckle at the good-luck-charm cameos (like former boss Roger Corman). Still, the frayed plot strands of the 2004 Manchurian Candidate make it a lame duck to Frankenheimer's first-term thriller.