This year, the four major broadcast networkswho, remember, are making billions off the free use of airwaves owned by the publicelected to show only a portion of the 2004 political conventions. In other words, our nation's agenda-setters, our "liberal media," decided that selecting the country's next president is less important than Extreme Makeover or Big Brother 5. The inference is that it doesn't matter who sits in the White House. Whatever happens, the country's shadow government will still go about its work undisturbed, sitting in a boardroom somewhere counting ad money from Trading Spouses.
I offer the above as the answer to a good question: "Why remake The Manchurian Candidate, and why now?" Released in 1962, at the height of Cold War paranoia and a year before the Kennedy assassination, the original Manchurian Candidate remains one of the most delirious and cutting political thrillers ever made. It's not that the movie, a what-if scenario about a Red Communist plot to hijack the presidency, skewers any one party: the villains represent Joe McCarthy and Joe Kennedy just about equally. Instead, it advances a cynical conceit that seems clairvoyant with each new election cycle: the people we elect aren't the ones running the country.
Only the faces in the remake have changed. Since the Commies aren't hiding under the floorboards anymore, the new Manchurian Candidate seizes upon a clear and present danger: a corporation. Not just any conglomerate, but an octopus called Manchurian Global whose tentacles extend into medical software, genetic engineering and, yes, weapons manufacture. Any resemblance to actual companies that profit from global unrest (cough Halliburton cough) is of course purely coincidental.
So are most of the similarities between the original and the remake, directed by Jonathan Demme with his customary graphic aplomb. Even with the director's flair for offbeat castingmeet Robyn Hitchcock, international man of mysterythe new Candidate establishes itself early on as a more conventional kind of suspense thriller. But it's still smart and devious, and fully engaged with the here and now.
Less neurotic than Frank Sinatra in the original, Denzel Washington stars as a Gulf War vet whose nagging visionscapture, torture, murderstart to seem more like flashbacks. These involve his decorated comrade, a priggish well-born named Raymond Shaw. As played by Liev Schreiber, who pulls off a tricky mix of remote smoothness and sympathetic misery, Shaw the privileged puppet suggests a nightmare fusion of Bush and Kerry. Groomed relentlessly for greatness, he's being pushed toward the White House by his ruthless Manchurian-backed mother. As this maternal monster, Meryl Streep does a witty, Peggy Noonan-esque riff on Angela Lansbury's delicious viciousness.
If the original was ahead of its time, this Candidate is strictly in the moment. Winding through the film is a near-subliminal news ticker of bleeding headlines and bulletins spewing from every passing TV set or taxicab radio. These dispatches concern everything from war profiteering to corporate malfeasance: they give the movie an unusual topical urgency, which Tak Fujimoto's close, sinister camerawork only heightens. As befits a guy who knows his talking heads, Demme has fun with the chattering classeshis punditocracy consists of Sidney Lumet, Roy Blount Jr. and Fab Five Freddy.
These touches make up somewhat for the loss of the original's malicious, disorienting black humor. Demme handles the twists and turns with skill, but there's nothing here as unforgettable as Lansbury's notorious Judas kisslet alone the original's bizarre opening, which presents The Andy Griffith Show's Clara Edwards as a Communist torturer.
Yet even if the new Manchurian Candidate has a shorter shelf life than the original, it's at least astute enough to recognize that our most powerful enemies have no political affiliation. In two weeks, there's a documentary called The Corporation opening here that makes Demme's conspiracy fantasy look like a Tupperware party. And it indicts TV news organizations that dance at the hands of billionaire puppetmasters. "Let's put on a good show," chirps a network functionary before The Manchurian Candidate's climactic convention. At least in Demme's world, it actually gets broadcast.
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