At the end of the Korean War, 22 American POWs officially embraced communism and opted to remain in North Korea. Their decision was so odd, so inexplicable, that these men were often described as "brainwashed" -- some sort of mind-altering technique the communists were supposed to have that could make a man forgo liberty and Frigidaires for totalitarianism and iceboxes. Those 22 were, in their way, the original Manchurian Candidates.

Now there is yet another, this one played brilliantly by Liev Schreiber. It's the role originated by Laurence Harvey in the first "The Manchurian Candidate," the 1962 film directed by John Frankenheimer. That film, acceptably preposterous in a Hollywood sort of way, was set in real events. Nation after nation had gone communist. Good people were being seduced by evil. The Korean War had ended and some Americans had not gone home. Those 22 men proved something.

That something is precisely what's missing from the new "The Manchurian Candidate." In the version directed by Jonathan Demme, the communist conspiracy is replaced by big business or something. I say "or something" because it's not clear who the bad guys are, except that they are awfully rich and awfully evil and their scope is so vast that they control almost everything but the weather. In an interview in Newsweek, Demme himself mentioned "what we're reading in newspapers today" and cited "Halliburton or Bechtel or the Carlyle Group. . . . Billions of dollars are being made and, yes, lives are being lost." In my own movie, a statement like that would be followed by portentous music.

It's impossible for me to know whether Demme believes what he says. After all, as a major Hollywood director, he ain't exactly a working stiff. What's more, his studio is Paramount, which is owned by Viacom, which also owns CBS, cable networks (MTV, Showtime) and the Simon & Schuster publishing house. Demme is no Sundance hopeful, but he has undoubtedly tapped into the left's current Zeitgeist, which believes as fervently in the Carlyle Conspiracy as the right once did in the Communist Conspiracy. In fact, more than one movie reviewer has mentioned the film's Michael Moore sensibilities.

This is dicey stuff. Conspiracy theories thrive when people lose faith in democracy, particularly its transparency. For many, the last presidential election justifies any crisis of faith. Their candidate, Al Gore, lost to George W. Bush -- only he didn't. He won the popular vote but lost in the electoral college, or so said the Supreme Court. Something happened, and it happened behind closed doors (at the court) and it resulted in the election of someone who had not been elected and who habitually makes the most momentous decisions by conferring with no one visible and explains them afterward by repeating assertions that are demonstrably not true. This is history simplified, but it is history nonetheless.

It's interesting to note the companies that Demme mentioned. They are all in service industries of one kind or another -- construction, engineering or investing. That means they lack large factories, enormous plants of the GM or U.S. Steel kind. They are amorphous, everywhere because they are nowhere. Particularly when it comes to Carlyle, they represent a return to the conspiracy theories of old, the ones that involved money and money movement. In the fervid minds of conspiracy believers, Carlyle is an updated House of Rothschild, a private equity firm instead of a banking house, with its tentacles everywhere, profiting from both war and peace (but more from war), serving both Saudi and Israeli interests -- never mind the contradiction. It makes no sense, but so what? It's as logical as an election lost by the winner and a war fought to rid a country of weapons it did not have.

A movie's only a movie, but "The Manchurian Candidate" speaks volumes about our times and the yen for simplicities with which to explain complexities. It is a film about "them," about "city hall" (you can't fight it) and about a deracinated type of anti-Semitism in which the mysterious evil ones are not Jews anymore and not really Gentiles either but merely the veiled powerful who control so much. The original movie drew its power from the facts of its times and so, in a way, does this one. Not a single reviewer that I read scoffed at the premise: Halliburton instead of the commies? Sure. Why not?

"The Manchurian Candidate" will be a hit. It's a great yarn taken from a classic of a screenplay, well acted -- sometimes brilliantly so -- smartly updated and directed with verve by Demme. It's an interesting movie, but like Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11," it's not half as interesting as the audience that accepts its premise.

cohenr@washpost.com