Hail to the thief 

Demme updates Manchurian Candidate for war on terror

Jonathan Demme doesn't remake The Manchurian Candidate so much as reprogram it. Like one of the shadowy, brainwashing scientists that populate both films, Demme takes the story of John Frankenheimer's suspenseful Cold War satire and instills new marching orders for the war on terror. It's not a smooth or subtle procedure, but Demme's film emerges as a fearsomely efficient thriller in its own right.

Demme drops us into the film during Desert Storm and plays the credits over poker-playing troops crammed into a tank. Crunchy rock songs and hip-hop wail in the background--beginning, cleverly, with Wyclef Jean's Hendrix-style cover of "Fortunate Son"--until we start to share the stir-crazed disorientation of the soldiers. But the outside world isn't any more normal: the Kuwaiti desert looks as red as the surface of Mars, except when seen through sickly-green night vision goggles.

Capt. Ben Marco (Denzel Washington) leads the men into an ambush during a routine mission. Marco blacks out as bullets fly, and we cut to the present-day officer describing the incident to a group of Boy Scouts and explaining how Sgt. Raymond Shaw (Liev Schreiber) saved most of the men, garnering himself a Congressional Medal of Honor and a blooming political career.

A strung-out stranger (Jeffrey Wright) heckles the speech before revealing that he served under Marco during that very incident. Marco brushes away the serviceman's accusations that Shaw's tale of heroism was fictitious. But when Marco returns home and we see the clippings of Shaw papering his apartment walls, we realize that he's obsessed with the mission as well.

Shaw is also the center of attention at an unnamed political party's national convention. Shaw's mother, Eleanor (Meryl Streep), is a high-ranking senator, and she pressures the power brokers to make her son the vice presidential candidate instead of the bleeding-heart Sen. Jordan (Jon Voight). Streep steps into the role like a political pro, glad-handing one minute, strong-arming the next. When she streamrolls her adversaries and puffs up her own patriotism, it's like seeing Streep cast as Roy Cohn in Angels in America instead of Al Pacino.

Shaw bristles at Eleanor's interference and her condescendingly maternal manner, but obeys her wishes and becomes the VP candidate. But his passivity goes further than that. Plenty of elected officials are slaves to special interests, but that's literally the case for Shaw. He receives enigmatic phone calls, falls into trances and has mysterious invasive surgeries--but remembers none of it later.

Schreiber, like Laurence Harvey in the original, seems cast for his limitations. He's frequently a remote, chilly actor, but at times his Shaw releases his true feelings buried under obligations to family, party and unknown puppet masters. Yet Schreiber never conveys the ease and passion that would make Shaw a popular campaigner.

Marco finds himself increasingly obsessed with Shaw and the events in the desert, which he believes fit with a conspiracy that's still going on. Marco's suspicions range from the high-powered multinational corporation Manchurian Global to the too-friendly grocery store clerk.

Both films use surreal imagery with skin-crawling effectiveness. The original took a matter-of-fact approach, injecting violent details in otherwise mundane settings. Demme's version lacks the shocking force of the first film and shows little interest in the subplot with Sen. Jordan's daughter (Vera Farmiga), who happens to be Shaw's unrequited love.

But Demme gives Candidate the jittery quality of a paranoid's fever dream, with hidden cameras in every room and menacing goons around every corner. Marco suffers from berserk nightmares full of bloodshed, alien Muslims and mad-scientist gizmos. As in Silence of the Lambs, Demme demonstrates a fondness for characters staring into the camera in extreme close-up, which perfectly fits Candidate's atmosphere of mistrust.

Washington at first serves as our anchor. The actor's precision gives Marco normalcy and credibility, and the outlandish conspiracy theories sound more convincing from him. We feel for Marco as he starts to fall apart, dropping files of "evidence" in the street and screaming at passers-by like a homeless lunatic. We become convinced that Marco's either been monstrously used or he's going insane.

Demme's film shares many of the anxieties of Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11. We see soldiers in desert camouflage under fire, civil liberties abused in the name of homeland security and untouchable conglomerates that link American politicians to wealthy Saudis. When one of Candidate's confrontations takes place in a kindergarten classroom, you search for a copy of My Pet Goat.

Candidate's timely content gives extra sizzle to its engrossing tension. The film only goes wrong with little details, like the irritating cameo from Al Franken as a newscaster, putting a "liberal" stamp on a film that sounds bipartisan alarms.

And the name "Manchurian Global" proves a clumsy way to retain the title The Manchurian Candidate. It's difficult to believe that a corrupt corporation would retain such a sinister-sounding name, at least for its U.S. subsidiary. In the real world, the evil company would operate under a bland, reassuring appellation, like Microsoft. Or the Carlyle Group. Or maybe Halliburton.

This article first appeared in Creative Loafing, Atlanta's alternative newsweekly.

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