Jonathan Demme's 'Manchurian Candidate' Trails the Chilling Original
By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 30, 2004; Page C01
"The Manchurian Candidate" proves that some paranoids not only have, but deserve, enemies.
Count me as one of them. The movie, directed by a Jonathan Demme who should know better, is a mediocre reengineering of the John Frankenheimer classic of 1962. It shunts through the material, doing some interesting synthesizing, some genetic recombining, but it all adds up to something less powerful and interesting than the original.
That, by the way, is exactly what was said of Demme's last film, "The Truth About Charlie," a dreary remake of an equally great early '60s film, "Charade." A filmmaker who could cast Mark Wahlberg in the Cary Grant part is possibly a little bereft of judgment from the get-go.
The original "Manchurian," concocted by a paranoia addict and brilliant thriller writer named Richard Condon, started with the harm Sen. Joe McCarthy was doing to America in the '50s. Condon thought it couldn't be worse if McCarthy were a Soviet agent. So he decided to spin a tale from that premise, adding certain delicious twists: the McCarthy surrogate (named John Yerkes Iselin) was an alcoholic boob; the malicious Red agent running him was his ambitious wife, who happened also to be the mother by first marriage of one weird fellow named Raymond Shaw. When Mother Shaw demanded from her masters a perfect assassin to help advance the master plan, they kidnapped her son (on duty in the Korean War), brainwashed him (and his platoon), and sent him back to her. The idea was to get Sen. Iselin into the White House, under Red control, by any means possible, including the murder of those who stand in his way. Meanwhile, the fellow trying to decipher all this was Ben Marco, Raymond's commanding officer in Korea, also brainwashed but suffering recurrent nightmares as the brainwashing breaks down.
What made the movie work was style: Frankenheimer was fresh out of live TV in New York, and he got a TV director's immediacy and incisiveness into the film, with vivid close-ups, a lot of shock cutting, some new visualizations of conventional action sequences. The film language (and Condon's in the book: so ironic, so witty, so nearly comical) really reformed the ways in which this kind of story was told.
That stylistic excitement is gone, of course. The new movie feels like any of a hundred almost-good recent thrillers. Demme and screenwriters Daniel Pyne and Dean Georgaris pretty much hew to the original premise, though you can guess the updates. The Korean War has become the Gulf War. Reds no longer being around, the filmmakers assign all evil to an investment outfit called the Manchurian Fund, a kind of Michael Moore fantasy of Fascism Inc. The women -- Raymond's mom, but also Ben's love interest -- no longer achieve their power through the men: Instead of being married to a senator, Raymond's mother is a senator. Instead of telling his troubles to his new girlfriend who knows an FBI agent, Ben Marco tells them to a new girlfriend who is an FBI agent, and so forth. Also, Raymond is not a journalist, as (in the original) he became upon his return from Korea; he is a congressman, and it is he, not Sen. Iselin, the McCarthy surrogate (now gone from the picture), who is the Manchurian candidate, being maneuvered to the top job.
Some of this is extremely clever, but many of the changes also hurt. By cutting Iselin, they cut the engine of the story, which is Condon's fury at McCarthy. They thus rob the film of the original's strongest element, which was the great James Gregory's take on Iselin-McCarthy as a drunken fool, charging that there were 29, er, no, 49, no no no, 57 commies in the Defense Department. That has been replaced by nothing; no outrage drives the movie.
And none of the devices -- from the phrase that got Raymond into his killer robot mood to the killings themselves -- is as elegant and expressive here as they were there. Worst of all, the really cool karate fight -- one of the first American martial arts sequences -- between Frank Sinatra's Marco and Henry Silva's Chunjin has been done away with entirely.
The big news surrounding this film, of course, is the allegation that Meryl Streep, in the role of Raymond's mother (Angela Lansbury was brilliantly cold in the original), evokes Hillary Rodham Clinton. The problem with this is that it's wrong. Streep, who's brilliant, does a far more generic Washington power-woman spin. She's the best thing in the picture, alternately as coy as a concubine and as shrewd as a Chicago ward heeler, but with a mind faster than an adding machine, a will of iron and charisma that won't stop. She's much more Pamela Harriman than Hillary, and she doesn't have that nasal Chicago squawk-accent that bedevils Hillary (I can call it that because I have one, too, only worse).
Denzel Washington plays the Army intelligence officer Ben Marco, whose nightmares caused by the unraveling of his dry-cleaned brain first suggest there's something dangerous beneath Raymond's focused, professional politician's personality. Washington's got big shoes to fill, as Sinatra's was probably the best performance of his career. He fills them well enough, but not remarkably. As for Raymond, he's now played by Liev Schrieber, an extremely interesting young actor. Of the principals, he's the one who appears to have studied the antecedent performance the most closely. Thus he's not really playing Raymond Shaw, he's playing Laurence Harvey playing Raymond Shaw, and the results are mesmerizing.
But the film goes wrong, I think, in investing too much science fiction hubba-hubba in the brainwashing technologies. Frankenheimer pretty much took them for granted; Demme feels an urge to painstakingly document them, with a long backstory that affiliates a rogue Boer scientist (Boers! Multinationals! The movie isn't taking any chances, is it?) with the Manchurian Fund, this creepy guy being some kind of genius at plugging wires into brains à la "Frankenstein" and then planting behavior-modifying microchips in zzzzz-zzzzzz. Oh, sorry, fell asleep there during the sci-fi junk.
And a plot that turns on presidential assassination, released into an environment positively wacko with president hatred? Is that really a good idea? Do we want to see a sniper in a hidden room, the view through his scope as the crosshairs caress the target? Possibly some folks should have rethought this one as they rethought so many others.
But in the end, what I missed more than anything was the great John Frankenheimer. He was a fabulous director, always interesting, always finding some new way of doing things. This film is professional but meek. This "Manchurian Candidate" feels as if it were directed by someone with a South African microchip in his brain.
The Manchurian Candidate (130 minutes, at area theaters) is rated R for battle violence, close-range murders and assorted hissy fits.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
Denzel Washington fills the role originated by Frank Sinatra of a brainwashed Army intelligence officer whose nightmares are all too real.
(Ken Regan -- Paramount Pictures)