The Manchurian Candidate is the best anti-George Bush movie of the year surpassing even the fictional 9/11 by Michael Moore. (Oh I forgot, Moore’s account is a non-fictional documentary. My apology.) I will say that while I am voting for Bush, I did enjoy the new version of the Manchurian Candidate. While Roger Ebert argued that you don’t need to see the original to enjoy the new one or that it is not a necessity, after spending most of a day thinking about this point, I disagree.
While the latest version has many advantages as far as film production is concerned, it lacks the complexity of the original. For one, the original was written as a cold-war thriller and while John Frankenheimer directed his ire at the McCarthyites of that era, the movie does make it clear that the bad guys did exist and really did try to take over the United States. Frankenheimer understood evil existed but that extremism in fighting it created its own problem. Jonathan Demme’s version lacks Frankenheimer’s nuances and simply just made an anti-Bush film and disguised it as a thriller. In Demme’s world, the bad guys are not the Islamic fundamentalists terrorists that have killed thousands of our own, but corporate America. (Can you say Halliburton, anyone? There is no doubt that the fictional Manchurian corporation is the replicate of Halliburton.)
Essentially Demme’s vision is that corporate America is our chief threat to our freedom and that the present war on terror is a mere distraction from the real issue of corporate America’s rape of the rest of the us. It is pure Bullshit but it what passes for reason or debate from the left today. Despite the lack of real understanding of the world, Demme’s movie does work on certain levels. For one, it is well acted. For another, it is a thriller that leaves you gasping. Especially, if you have seen the original, the ending is unexpected. At least, I did not expect it.
Frank Sinatra, just like Denzel Washington in the remake, has recurring nightmares and never feels quite right about his experiences in the Korea war, as Washington does not feel quite right about his experience in the first Gulf War. Both men take their roles to another level. If you wondered about Sinatra’s skill as an actor, this movie proved that if he really worked at it; he could have easily been one of the best actors of his era or any era. He was that good. His angst at trying to understand what has happened, combined with the Army intelligence investigation into the story of his former comrades has you believing in the unbelievable. Let face it, the whole plot centered on the Chinese communists brainwashing one man into becoming an assassin and used as part of plot to take over the United States.
Raymond Shaw, played by Laurence Harvey, is the man that the Chinese picked and, as it turns out, he also is the son of a Republican operative played by Angel Lansbury. Lansbury is also a very powerful wife of a drunken Senator, who is being groomed to be the VP nominee. However, Lansbury has her own secret or two, and from this point, her relations to her son are both compelling and creepy. What we find is that the very hawkish Republican is actually a communist operative and her son has become the vehicle for the Communists to take over America.
As Sinatra seeks the truth, he contacts Shaw and we find that Shaw, while he has a congressional medal of honor, was hated by his own troops. That makes the phrase echoed by his fellow troops that Shaw “is the kindest, warmest human being” so eerie. Sinatra, himself, remembered Shaw as a smug conceited person but yet, he still echoes that phrase “Shaw is the kindest, warmest human being.” In Demme’s movie, this is only implied but Schreiber makes clear his own smug indifference to his former comrades in arms.
During the original, as Sinatra moves further in the investigation, he meets Janet Leigh and this romance adds to Sinatra character since he has trouble associating with the beautiful Leigh. His past war experience and the brainwashing makes an emotional relationship hard to obtain. What is never truly made clear in this movie was that Leigh was really Sinatra’s controller, the woman whose job was to keep Sinatra sane as he moved forward to finding out the real truth about his own brainwashing.
In many ways, the Washington character is even more vulnerable and incapable of establishing a emotional relationship. This point is parallel to Shaw’s incapacity to establish relations with other women.
Denzel Washington also goes through similar adjustments but there is a difference: while Army intelligence do not totally doubt Sinatra’s story, Washington is left alone to fend for himself. His Rosie turns out to be a fed, who is disguised as a check-out girl at a local grocery store. She becomes Washington’s controller as much as Meryl Streep is Liev Schreiber’s controller. Washington’s character is as much a Manchurian candidate as Liev Schreiber’s character. In the original, Sinatra was not a weapon but Washington is as much a part of the plot as Schreiber.
But the most sinister character in the both movies is Shaw’s mother. Angela Lansbury and Meryl Streep are outright creepy, taking smothering parent to a new height. You never get a full breadth until the end when you find that the relationship is a little more than mother-son. Lansbury was brilliant as the manipulative mother who essentially gave up her son, whom she loved, to the Communists, and in the update Streep gives up her son to the Manchurian Corporation. The difference is that Lansbury was a true believer, betraying her country and sacrificing her son in the process.
Streep truly believes that her son will save America and never fully understands the deal that she had made with the evil Manchurian corporation. Lansbury comprehends very clearly that she essentially condemned her son to death and this riles her at the end as she pledges vengeance against her master. As for Streep, she becomes a victim of her own conspiracy but she never fully has the same leverage with her handler as Lansbury does.
Streep stated in a interview that she never saw the original but she certainly captures the mother perfectly. In the original, Lansbury is the wife of a Senator and the puppet master from behind whereas Streep is a U.S. Senator, who manages to get her two-term congressman son on the ticket as the Vice-President nominee. In the both movies, when we briefly see the true nature of the mother’s relationship with her son near the end – her son’s double-murder of her chief political opponent and daughter makes more sense.
When Shaw kills the daughter of the Senator, he is killing a woman that he once loved and who proved to be a serious rival to Mommie dearest. His murder of Senator Jordan in both movies was getting rid of a problem. Except in Demme’s movie, Shaw is not a trained killer but a mere puppet to allow the Manchurian Corporation to run America. It is the mother who turns him into a killer.
What made the original Manchurian Candidate a masterpiece is that the writers and director understood the complexity of the foreign affairs of the day. In 1962, both Democrats and Republicans were committed to defeating the Soviet Empire but Frankenheimer attacked the extremism of the McCarthy tactics as being counterproductive to the fight against Communism! Yet, the director had to acknowledge that the threat existed. In the updated version, the Hollywood Left fear Bush more than the barbarians who flew planes into the World Trade Center. Demme completely discounts the war on terror and that is the biggest weakness of the movie. In Demme’s universe, it does not matter which political party is in control for it is corporate America that controls all. This becomes clear since Raymond Shaw in the remake is a flaming liberal and it is apparent that he is a Democrat. (So, is John Edwards really a mole for Halliburton Corporation and others? That is essentially Demme’s argument. Kerry, Bush, Cheney and Edwards: it does not matter. Demme’s point is that he “won’t get fooled again.” There is no difference between parties – sounds like a Nader’s supporter.
The political arguments are more sterile and contain less distinction than the original. It is the political arguments that keep the new Manchurian Candidate from being a great movie. It is only a good movie and it will never hit the heights that the original obtained. Maybe, if Hollywood would hire writers with a better understanding of the world, they make a few more classics. However, my advice is ignore the politics and enjoy the flick.