Without tampering with the bones of its narrative, Jonathan Demme has transformed The Manchurian Candidate, turning the classic cold-war pulp thriller into a fictional sibling of Fahrenheit 9/11. Paranoia still fuels the tale, as it did in Richard Condon’s 1959 novel and John Frankenheimer’s 1962 movie, but the fizz, the sex, the comedy, and the insolence of those entertainments have been replaced by mournfulness, anger, astringent compassion, and sheer dread. The screenplay by Daniel Pyne and Dean Georgaris is a tighter piece of work than George Axelrod’s ’62 script (though not nearly as witty), and Demme’s direction fills nearly every shot with the technological surfeit that drives, empowers, and enslaves us. This may be the most baleful espionage thriller Hollywood has ever produced.
The novel was politically goofy, yoking a John Birch-like suspicion that Commies crouch under every bed with a hipster’s derision for the squareness and vulgarity of the Right. The monstrous Eleanor Shaw, using her brainwashed son, Raymond, to advance an agenda worthy of Joe McCarthy, turns out to be the chief agent of the Red Chinese. This political hodgepodge didn’t bother screenwriter Axelrod or director Frankenheimer in 1962, and why should it have? The peculiar cultural exhilaration of the Kennedy era was grounded in both domestic liberalism (civil-rights policies finally carried out by LBJ) and confident, swashbuckling anticommunism. Axelrod and Frankenheimer, both liberals, didn’t jettison Condon’s paranoia but simply employed it cheekily, while lyricizing the love scenes and making the conclusion more heroic than the book’s, with Raymond salvaging just enough free will to doublecross his psychological masters.
In the current adaptation, Eleanor Shaw is no longer a power behind the throne but a senator so influential that she can jockey her Raymond (also a senator) into the vice-presidential nomination of their party, which is clearly a Democratic Party so fazed by the war against terrorism that it must kowtow to a right-winger. Add to this the fact that Raymond has been brainwashed (during the first Gulf War) not by foreign enemies but by a tentacular corporation run by American and Saudi businessmen, and you see how the old thriller has become Jonathan Demme’s take on The Way We Live (in fear) Now.
Early in the movie, a caption tells us that we are in the Washington, D.C., of today. But we really aren’t. If you listen carefully to the commentary broadcast on televisions in the background (almost every scene has a monitor somewhere in sight), you learn that “body bags are coming in from all over the world” and that terrorists are attacking the United States and other countries all the time. And what you see on screen, though Demme’s camera never emphasizes this, are armed soldiers in the streets of major cities such as Chicago and D.C., casually accepted by the citizenry. This isn’t 2004 but most likely 2008, and the war on terrorism has become the long dreaded Third World War-sans nuclear weapons but also lacking a peaceful American homefront. If the cold war of the earlier Candidate provoked paranoia, how much more must be aroused by a war visible mostly on TV but periodically exploding in our streets or at our doorsteps?
Demme has created a world in which phones ring too loudly, bathroom fixtures snoop on bathers, hotel walls collapse to reveal state-of-the-art torture chambers. In 1962, the brainwashed soldiers were controlled mainly by hypnosis, but here they are also monitored by implants. In fact, invasiveness is the keynote of the entire film. No place is private, no body is unwired, no mind is free. Richard Condon has been made over into George Orwell.
When all is bugged, even a hero may act buggy. Major Ben Marco, friend and would-be rescuer of Raymond, is the real hero of the story (in all versions). In 1962, Frank Sinatra’s Marco may have been brainwashed but, once he learned of his condition, could cleanse himself and save others. Denzel Washington’s Marco, though tenacious, is never free of self-doubt, even after he’s dug an implant out of his own back. Fear never leaves his face. Is my body really unwired? How deep into my unconscious did my tormentors dig? Is my new girlfriend really on my side or is she somebody’s secret agent? Washington’s most charming quality, his boyish candor and expectation of justice, seems undermined here. He’s like a child who has told his parents that a teacher has molested him, and the parents have sided with the teacher.
But it is the two monsters, the innocent killer Raymond and the guilty mastermind Eleanor, who have been transformed even more. Angela Lansbury’s 1962 villain was an ice queen but Meryl Streep turns her into a barely leashed neurotic who escalates hissy fits into diatribes. Oddly, this Eleanor is slightly more human than the earlier version because she’s no longer delivering her son into the hands of foreign enemies but is trying to place him at the crest of American triumphalism. With a caw in her voice and a sort of preorgasm wildness in the eyes, Streep’s Eleanor is a Mommy Dearest all right, but she wants to be Mommy to the nation, as well.
Liev Schreiber makes Raymond almost as catatonic before his brainwashing as after. Psychologically hollowed by his mother, he has always been the perfect vessel for murderous goals; they give him ballast. Although it’s not really believable that a vice-presidential candidate could find enough privacy to commit murder, Schreiber does add a frightening dimension to Raymond by making him appear normal when he’s in the spotlight of celebrity, shrinking into a nerd only when the reporters disperse. This Raymond is certainly the victim of his mother but he has become a complicit victim. In one of the final scenes, as Eleanor reassures her son that everything has been done for his own good, the woman seems to be wrapping the young man in swaddling clothes or winding sheets. You can’t quite tell because Demme has shrewdly staged the scene almost abstractly, keeping the camera at chest level and the background white so that the characters appear to be floating in some sterile version of incest-hell. Streep’s face registers adoration; Raymond conveys the bliss of the lobotomized-at one point he seems about to gurgle like a happy baby. Yet, in the final meeting of Marco and Raymond on election day, some yearning for decency in Schreiber’s eyes responds to the urgency in Denzel Washington’s voice. It’s this rapport-one laboratory rat recognizing another-that sets up the movie’s climax, a stroke of violence that refutes Condon’s mechanistic pessimism without quite rising to the free-will heroism of the Frankenheimer adaptation.
But, then again, free will and heroism seem like such antediluvian concepts in this movie that any trace of them comes like freshets jetting into a dead salt sea. Demme’s Manchurian Candidate is as apt for our times as the 1962 version was for its. Kudos to the movie. Alas for our times.