The Manchurian Candidate

**** (Masterpiece)

Directed by Jonathan Demme

With Denzel Washington, Meryl Streep, and Liev Schreiber.

It used to irk me to see my favorite movies remade and updated, but these days I’m more inclined to see the upside of this kind of recycling. Bad remakes do no actual harm to their models: Philip Kaufman’s flat 1978 adaptation of Invasion of the Body Snatchers only replenishes my appreciation for Don Siegel’s 1956 original, and Abel Ferrara’s abysmal 1993 version makes Siegel’s look like the fruit of genius. And both remakes at least had the virtue of reviving public memory of their source. A good remake, on the other hand, is like a good cover. The Talking Heads’ take on Al Green’s “Take Me to the River” is not, and wasn’t meant to be, better than the original, but that still leaves plenty of room for it to be interesting and even excellent on its own terms. Jonathan Demme’s remake of John Frankenheimer’s 1962 film The Manchurian Candidate strikes me as a very artful cover–about the cleverest imaginable transliteration of the story from its historical moment to ours.

The new film’s detractors have tended to equate its departures from the original with inferiority, but the same reviewers would surely have been puzzled, if not revolted, by a more faithful translation. The original Manchurian Candidate, about a conspiracy to put a communist mole in the White House, gets its kick from a volatile blend of four different flavors of fear: fear of communism, fear of McCarthyite anticommunism, fear of the yellow peril, and fear of female power. The first two of these are of course historically obsolete, while the second two are out of fashion in mainstream popular entertainment (although that hasn’t prevented Demme and screenwriters Daniel Pyne and Dean Georgaris from preserving a pinch of one and a whole lot of the other).

Racism is perhaps the most radioactive aspect of the original, and it’s only the movie’s pitch-perfect farcical tone that saves it from present-day censure for gross political incorrectness. As Chunjin, manservant to the brainwashed Sergeant Shaw, the superbly ugly Henry Silva is the embodiment of servile oriental treachery, while Dr. Yen Lo (Khigh Dhiegh), the Chinese scientist who hypnotizes Shaw and his platoon, is a gloating gook sorcerer in the tradition of Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu. Actually, “in the tradition of” may be too mild a way of putting it: Richard Condon, whose best-selling 1959 novel inspired Frankenheimer’s film, was in turn likely inspired by Rohmer’s 1936 novel President Fu Manchu, in which the mustachioed criminal genius grooms his own American presidential candidate while financing a bogus patriotic movement (the League of Good Americans) to put him in the White House. Fu Manchu’s elaborate takeover plot further involves an unwitting amnesiac assassin, programmed to kill upon hearing a trigger word–“Asia”–from his evil controller.

In Demme’s reworking, Shaw’s platoon is kidnapped while serving in the first gulf war, and the evil scientist who messes with their minds is a white South African (always a safe ethnicity for bad guys) working for an evil multinational called Manchurian Global. The Muslim “other” scarcely enters into the picture, except for some spookily made-up Arab women whose appearance in the dreams and hallucinations of the brainwashed soldiers goes unexplained.

The misogyny of the first version, on the other hand, has made the transition to the second almost undiminished, which is odd and also sort of brave on Demme’s part. In the original, Shaw’s overbearing mother (Angela Lansbury), who is also his hypnotic controller, stands for “momism.” An intellectual buzzword of the 50s, the term was coined and popularized by novelist and essayist Philip Wylie in his best-selling 1955 polemic Generation of Vipers. Wylie’s purple, Mencken-on-mescaline prose makes it hard to tell precisely what he had against American motherhood (example: “Behind this vast aurora of pitiable weakness is mom, the brass-breasted Baal, or mom, the thin and enfeebled martyr whose very urine, nevertheless, will etch glass”), but as picked up by the chattering classes, the concept had something to do with American sons being unmanned by their controlling, seductive mothers–a menace that Lansbury positively nailed.

In the updated version Eleanor Shaw (Meryl Streep) is still a tyrant, but no longer a domestic one: she’s a powerful Democratic senator with a more than passing resemblance to Hillary Clinton. Good liberal that he is, I doubt Demme intended any of this as antifeminist backlash; I’d guess, rather, that his storytelling instincts and feel for a good archetype simply overruled his political sentiments. In any case, Streep is absolutely magnificent as the devouring matriarch–better, in truth, than Lansbury. The part itself has been smartly updated to reflect changes in parenting styles. Where Lansbury’s character is a pre-Spockian iceberg, imperious and remote, Streep’s is horribly and intimately smothering–she knows which of her son’s buttons to push because she put them there in the first place. And although it’s no more explicitly represented than in the original, the incestuous vibe of her relationship with her son (Liev Schreiber) is even ickier. Ultimately, however, Streep’s villainy remains individual and subordinate to the greater evil of the Manchurian corporation, whereas in Frankenheimer’s film mommies are ultimately scarier than commies. Angela Lansbury is an agent of the Russians and the Chinese, but you definitely believe her when she vows she’ll one day make the latter pay for “so contemptuously underestimating me.”

The biggest difference between the two films is their genres. Frankenheimer’s version is really a black comedy that generates suspense as a by-product; it’s closer in tone to Dr. Strangelove than to The Spy Who Came In From the Cold. Demme’s film has its darkly comic moments (most of them provided by Streep), but it’s essentially a straight-up thriller, infinitely more self-serious than the original. The success of this risky transposition depends largely on good casting and great acting. Denzel Washington takes over for Frank Sinatra as Ben Marco, the commander of the brainwashed platoon, whose strange dreams lead him to uncover the plot to take over the White House. Where Sinatra enjoys the support and confidence of his military superiors throughout the original, Washington is quickly marginalized by his pursuit of the truth and soon starts looking and talking like a nut job, hitting a lot of the same notes he did in the underrated supernatural thriller Fallen (1998), which is not a bad thing at all. The casting of Schreiber as the hapless, stick-up-his-ass Shaw was a stroke of genius: he bears an ineffable but distinct resemblance to Laurence Harvey, who played Shaw in the original, and his pain-wracked eyes do more than anything to make the brainwashing premise credible in a noncomedic context.

If Demme’s version has a glaring weakness, it’s simple naivete. I don’t think I was the only one in the audience who laughed when one of the characters ominously defined the goal of the Manchurian conspiracy as installing America’s “first privately owned and operated vice president” in the White House. I can understand why Fu Manchu or Chinese communists might have to look to mind control as a means of gaining influence over the U.S. government, but hasn’t big business traditionally done just fine with simpler, more direct methods? And where the hell are the Republicans in all this mess? Oh wait, now I get it: the Manchurian corporation had to turn to the Democrats because Halliburton already had the GOP sewed up, and they were forced to resort to brainwashing because the Democrats were otherwise incorruptible.

Of course, most thrillers levy some sort of tax on the viewer’s credulity, but there’s little or no point. The Bourne Supremacy, for example, though nearly as accomplished technically as The Manchurian Candidate, is twice as far-fetched and signifies absolutely nothing. (While we’re on the topic, I’m pretty sure that the title of Condon’s novel is the gold standard upon which Robert Ludlum’s entire career as a thriller writer has been based. The trick’s simple enough: all you need is “The” followed by an allusive but meaningless combination of two words comprising six to eight syllables–“The Camembert Invective,” “The Oglethorpe Continuum,” “The Overcoat Dependency.”)

Finally, The Manchurian Candidate represents Demme’s return to form after an extended string of dogs. A graduate of the Roger Corman finishing school, Demme is at his best with genre material, and this is his best, most intuitive, and most artfully manipulative picture since The Silence of the Lambs.