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The Manchurian Candidate

Many consider political candidates to be bought and paid for by special interests. At least, they consider the other guys' candidates to be in somebody's pocket. So why not take it a step further, and make sure of it?

That idea runs through the remake of The Manchurian Candidate, a decent enough updating that still doesn't quite make sense. Why go to all the trouble? But then, that's the problem with being an American today; we're nowhere near as sure who the enemy is as we were when the original film was released in 1962. Then, it was clear. Now, director Jonathan Demme only has to play upon the strings of our unease and dissatisfaction; he doesn't have to actually give us any answers.

Ironic, considering how much the screenplay by Daniel Pyne and Dean Georgaris spells out. If anything, it's a little overplotted, telling us exactly what to feel, though still often leaving out that elusive "why?"

If, like Angela Lansbury, you're asking why bother with this remake at all, Demme does have an answer. The once unthinkable has become all too easy to consider, and what once played as tense satire now seems all too plausible, and let's face it: deep down, that scares the hell out of us.

And it should.

Though a subtitle tells us The Manchurian Candidate takes place today, it's more likely to be a few years in the future. Demme and his screenwriters make subtle nods to the present having spun out of control. In almost every public place, military personnel keep an alert but circumspect eye out for terrorists. Radio broadcasts allude to domestic attacks at an alarming rate. The nuclear specter looms large. Neither political party actually gets named, but odds are that Democrats will claim Raymond Shaw (Live Schreiber) as a Republican and vice versa. Having Al Franken cameo as a political pundit other than himself only complicates the matter. Just who is getting tweaked here?

Shaw proved himself a Gulf War hero, or at least, that's what the public believes. But the men of his unit are dying off at an alarming rate, all suffering from the same dream. Not variations on a theme, but the same dream. Even the commanding officer, Major Bennett Marco (Denzel Washington), suffers from the nightly terror of a completely different set of memories than his waking mind tells him he has.

In the original film, the military seems willing to accept that something is wrong. Our paranoia was so high that they were looking for excuses to identify the enemy. But now, we're trying not to rock the boat. Combat veterans do often have mental problems, and so the military solution is to heavily medicate a guy suffering from stress. Except Marco isn't crazy, and sometimes Shaw knows it. Unfortunately, also sometimes Shaw does not. Something did happen out in the desert, and it's all going to come to fruition on election night.

I knew it.

Demme keeps us off-balance visually, playing up nightmarish visions, including one of a savagely painted middle-Eastern woman, but call that a red herring. In fact, a lot of this film is full of red herrings, though artfully placed. As tense and effective as it is, you can't think about it too hard. A character points out that there are simpler ways to brainwash someone than the genetic modification mumbo-jumbo that is thrown in to give this a modern feel (and make sure that we have the requisite sinister British accents), and he's right. It's always awkward when a character turns out to be smarter than the script.

But Demme keeps it moving so you don't ask questions. His cast, as well, shines so strongly that you'll rarely look past the glare. Schreiber channels the spirit of Laurence Harvey effectively, though this script gives us far less to sympathize about Shaw. Chewing scenery as Shaw's mother, a Hillary/Libby Dole amalgam, Meryl Streep delivers another (yawn) nomination-worthy performance. And Denzel…well, he deserves the stardom he has.

Not as smart as it would have you believe, The Manchurian Candidate will still have you on the edge of your seat. Because of its timing, it seems extra effective. But any other year, it would just be a somewhat cool thriller.


Derek McCaw

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