Both Richard Condon's ingenious novel, The Manchurian Candidate, and the subsequent film adaptation confronted some controversial subjects in the America of the late 1950s and early 1960s, particularly in the destructive dialectic of the Cold War. Both works deal with Communism, McCarthyism, and a peculiarly American version of the Oedipus complex, the concept that Phillip Wylie called Momism. The picture anticipated the political assassinations that underlined the violence and pain of a turbulent decade and established a perfectly justified national paranoia as one of the persistent themes of the contemporary thriller.
The remake, directed by Jonathan Demme, retains the basic plot, characters, and situations of the original, but cleverly updates the material to our own time, in the process revealing a new and entirely relevant source of the movie's villainy. Denzel Washington plays the Frank Sinatra part of Major Ben Marco, a veteran of the 1991 Gulf War troubled by a recurring dream about a reconnaissance mission he commanded that encountered an ambush and went missing in the desert. When he learns that other veterans of his famous Lost Patrol suffer from the same nightmare, he attempts to recover his confused memories by speaking with the soldier who saved them all, Sergeant Raymond Shaw (Liev Schreiber).
The scion of a wealthy, distinguished family, Shaw, who won a congressional seat on the strength of the Medal of Honor he was awarded for rescuing his comrades, now seeks his party's vice presidential nomination. His domineering mother (Meryl Streep), a United States Senator herself, controls every step of his political career, cowing the opposition in his own party with an eloquent stream of vitriol and a sly hint of sexuality. (Despite the insinuations that Streep plays a version of Hillary Clinton, she obviously based her character on one of those vicious right wing blondes with the boarding school accents, most likely the certifiably loony Ann Coulter.)
In the process of investigating his condition, Marco unearths the real cause of the collective nightmares and the complicated plot behind them. Instead of a group of Russian and Chinese scientists brainwashing captured Americans in Korea, as in the original, now an international conglomerate physically controls the brains of the Lost Patrol. A team of scientists equipped with the latest in technology drugs their captives, inserts nanochips in their brains, and implants a sensor in their bodies, insuring knowledge of their location at all times and, more important, controlling them through various post-hypnotic commands.
The trail Marco follows leads him through a labyrinth of danger and discovery, as he begins to perceive a variety of entities observing and pursuing him, including the Army and apparently, at least two sets of government agents. He learns that the corporation responsible for the mind control is Manchurian Global, a company that inevitably resembles the notorious Halliburton, which sponsors invasions, uprisings, and rebellions all over the world. Their efforts maintain the state of fear that the administration desires and of course, enable them to reap enormous profits in a manner now familiar to most sentient Americans.
Manchurian Global undertakes the complicated project in order to place their own candidate, Raymond Shaw, in the White House, and thus achieve power of a sort that most international capitalists can only fantasize about. The scheme, which involves a few more twists than the original book and film, requires not only the manipulation of Shaw (with the connivance of his mother), but also, as the major discovers, of Marco himself. As in the original sources, the elaborate plot culminates in a public appearance, this time a grand victory celebration for the newly elected president and vice president.
A very different actor from Frank Sinatra --- no slouch himself --- Denzel Washington once again demonstrates his versatility and experience, putting together a character drawn from bits of previous roles, like the several cops and soldiers he has played in the past. Liev Schreiber, surprisingly, imparts slightly more depth and complexity to Raymond Shaw than the accomplished but awkward Lawrence Harvey. Now and then Meryl Streep sounds as if she were imitating Angela Lansbury, her predecessor, but she adds a layer of suppressed sexuality that lends credibility to the film's Oedipal themes, a neat and nasty trick.
The Manchurian Candidate emphasizes the paranoia imbuing a culture of surveillance, with an oppressive administration in the pockets of the rich and powerful, an ovine citizenry periodically prodded by vague threats of terrorism, an atmosphere of suspicion and distrust. It provides an exciting and relevant vision of the nation and the moment.
Updating an important classic thus seems not only appropriate, but virtually inevitable: Someone else would have made the film if Jonathan Demme hadn't. At the moment, it constitutes the necessary thriller for our time and place.
The Manchurian Candidate (R), starring Denzel Washington, Liev Schreiber, Meryl Streep, Jon Voight; written by Daniel Pyne and Dean Georgaris; directed by Jonathan Demme.