When I heard that Jonathan Demme planned to remake John Frankenheimer's sensational 1962 thriller The Manchurian Candidate, I passed in about a minute through four stages of Kübler-Rossian grief: denial ("He can't be that stupid"), anger ("Is nothing sacred?"), bargaining ("I just won't see the damn thing"), and depression ("Is he that desperate?"). The final stage, acceptance, came only after seeing Demme's movie and coming to terms with his achievement. The new The Manchurian Candidate (Paramount) doesn't have anything approaching the audacious cynicism of Frankenheimer's (and screenwriter George Axelrod's) original, and the climax doesn't make you similarly sick with suspense. But this is a work of passionate conviction. It has some of Fahrenheit 9/11's fire in the belly, and an aura of tragedy to go with it. Beautifully made and unsurpassingly creepy, it's the rare remake with something contemporary to add.
Of course, it would have to have something new to add, wouldn't it? The Frankenheimer-Axelrod adaptation of Richard Condon's bracingly unsentimental novel is indelibly early '60s: when fear of the Red Menace collided head-on with revulsion for the Red-baiting legacy of Sen. Joseph McCarthy; when the themes of brainwashing and the bomb and '50s ultrasensitive momma's boys and Freudian monster-mamas all coalesced into the freakiest paranoid melodrama the country had ever seen. And it was released during the Cuban missile crisis, when peoples' heads were already messed up.
The terrible new threat in Demme's remake isn't Reds or terrorists but a multinational conglomerate—which functions, as the recent documentary The Corporation contends, with the same level of conscience as a DSM-IV textbook psychopath. The "Manchurian" of the title is now "Manchurian Global," a corporation obviously modeled on Halliburton, down to the no-bid contracts and overcharges in Iraq. And the title character is different, too. In the original, he's the buffoonish, McCarthy-like vice-presidential nominee John Iselin, who's poised to win the presidency once his brainwashed stepson assassinates his running mate. Here, that stepson, the momma's boy and alleged war hero, Raymond Shaw (Liev Schreiber), is himself the Manchurian Candidate—a senator who's a candidate for his party's vice-presidential nomination.
That's good and bad. Good because it upends much of what we recall from the original, so that, at every turn, Demme and his screenwriters, Daniel Pyne and Dean Georgaris, are using our expectations to pull the rug out from under us. It's bad because Demme and Schreiber haven't rethought the character all the way through. This Raymond is, if anything, an even more charmless, abrasive rich boy than Condon's; and if there are moments when Schreiber's nerdy solipsism is desperately poignant, there are others when he doesn't bother to make Raymond a plausible politician—thereby blowing the chance for some good, nasty satire in this convention season. Critics like David Denby have labeled Schreiber a major actor, and Schreiber is so intent on proving it to the world that he gives us Method actorish cerebral contortions in the middle of big political speeches.
The other parts, happily, are played to the hilt—and, in the case of Meryl Streep as Raymond's mother, Eleanor Prentiss Shaw, a God-and-country conservative senator, the hilt above the hilt. Streep substitutes a high-wire, borderline-camp theatricality for Angela Lansbury's simmering inner demonism, packing more extravagant business into every second than anyone since—well, Streep in her theater days, before something (stage fright? bawling kids?) drove her full-time to the screen. (God, what a loss.) The way she disgustedly spits out the description of the liberal Sen. Jordan, played by Jon Voight, as a one-wwwworlder, had me screaming, and she stops the movie just by crunching down on some ice cubes with a mixture of cruelty and insouciance.
The work of Denzel Washington as Army Maj. Ben Marco is in an entirely different key. The actor who won an Oscar for his charismatic grandstanding in Training Day (2002) is here a messed-up, mumbling, sweat-drenched shell of a man, his eyes pulling back in anguish from the words coming out of his mouth—words that he knows he has been programmed to say. I've never seen this cock-of-the-walk actor play a character who doesn't seize the space. The role must have taken something out of him, and the performance is a personal triumph.
It's also a testament to Demme's humanism, which makes actors like Washington feel safe to go into themselves. There are no bit parts in a Demme movie, no expendable characters, no cannon fodder. The Manchurian Candidate is full of Demme stock-company players—Kimberly Elise (doing a big variation on the Janet Leigh role), Ted Levine, Dean Stockwell, Charles Napier, Paul Lazar, even Robyn Hitchcock as an English guide in Kuwait. And everyone registers. As Sen. Jordan, Jon Voight weighs his words like a man whose life has been spent trying to reconcile his intellect and his awareness of political realities. For an actor who has, on occasion, seemed more than a little bonkers, it's an amazingly grounded performance—perfectly judged. Even Simon McBurney's Atticus Noyle—the mad neuroscientist who pops up in dreams and behind the false walls in the back of closets—is a fascinatingly complex little slug, a soothing sadist.
Maybe Demme isn't enough of a sadist to make a thriller that drills into your skull with the same ruthless efficiency as Noyle (or, for that matter, Frankenheimer). And the movie does slacken and go a little soft in the climax. But the dread that permeates it almost compensates. The scenes of the soldiers in Raymond's old squadron (among them Jeffrey Wright) who know that something terrible is in their heads (but not what) linger and give the whole film the feel of a post-traumatic-stress-disorder nightmare, a bad dream of losing one's mind and body while the powerful look on with monstrous indifference. No, this isn't the twisted, sexy, tragicomic stick of dynamite that Frankenheimer gave us in 1962. It's more like a toxin that eats at you slowly from within. In more ways than one, it's the Gulf War Syndrome goes to the movies.