"The Manchurian Candidate"

Even Meryl Streep's a bust in Jonathan Demme's toothless, gutless remake of one of the best political movies ever made. In fact, she's the biggest bust of all.

Published July 30, 2004 8:00PM (EDT)

Politically speaking, we live in a dangerous world, one in which simplistic slogans have taken the place of nuance, in which thought is discouraged and meek acceptance of any evidence placed before us is rewarded. That explains how we get toothless, gutless, one-note political movies like Jonathan Demme's "The Manchurian Candidate," a picture that purports to have a galvanizing, liberal-minded theme (big business is taking over our country and our lives) but is really just ploddingly pedestrian.

"The Manchurian Candidate," arriving in theaters just months before an important election and at a time when many Americans feel distrustful of their government, may seem to be tip-tapping at a sensitive national nerve. But its timeliness gives it only the tiniest edge over other lackluster, run-of-the-mill summer entertainments like "I, Robot" -- and it isn't even as dumbly entertaining as some of them. God save us from boring relevance.

Admittedly, "The Manchurian Candidate" has the disadvantage of being a remake of one of the most subversively intelligent political movies ever made -- one that is also hauntingly melancholy, particularly for those of us who consider ourselves left patriots. (Please note that if you haven't seen the original and are sensitive to spoilers, you may want to stop reading here.) The original, made by John Frankenheimer in 1962 (adapted, superbly, from Richard Condon's novel by George Axelrod), starred Frank Sinatra as Maj. Ben Marco, who returns home from the Korean War to find himself troubled by brutal dreams that may actually be memories. As it turns out, other soldiers from his company are having the same nightmare. Marco digs for an explanation, and the more he discovers about these recurring common dreams, the less sense they make to him.

The secret behind them, he discovers, lies deep within one of his fellow soldiers, the dour and unlikable Sgt. Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey), whose voluptuously sinister mother, Eleanor Iselin (Angela Lansbury, in a performance as direct and as murderous as a sleek, jeweled machete), has a hold on him that goes beyond the Oedipal -- although of course, it enfolds elements of that, too. Eleanor, whom we always see dressed in lavishly embroidered silks and satins, is a Communist masquerading as a stalwart McCarthyist foot soldier -- a dragon lady zealously playing the part of upstanding citizen. As a means of furthering the political career of her husband, a colorless, dopey U.S. senator (James Gregory, standing in for Joe McCarthy), she has masterminded a scheme that turns her own son into a programmed assassin without a conscience. What she really wants, it seems, is something even more complicated than power. She wants to take a sledgehammer to democracy itself.

That's only a surface-skimming description of the original "Manchurian Candidate," a picture that's sometimes spoken of as if it were just an entertaining anti-McCarthyist relic or a sci-fi-tinged paranoia fantasy. Frankenheimer's "Manchurian Candidate" is a claustrophobic, obsessively controlled meditation on what it means to love your country, and how a certain kind of fear is a necessary component of that love. "Freedom from fear" was one of Franklin Delano Roosevelt's well-intentioned dreams for Americans, but it was a misguided one: Truly loving your country means fearing for its future, every day and every night, through peacetime as well as war, through moderate administrations as well as radical ones, through quiet times as well as eras clouded by terrorist threats.

The movie's recurring images of Abraham Lincoln, the Great Emancipator -- we see his serious, glowering countenance in a hanging portrait, as a bust, as the base of a cheesy lamp -- are a reminder that freedom isn't a gift, or even a right, but a responsibility, and an often weighty burden. Poor Lincoln, as he sat with his wife enjoying a dramatic entertainment (the contemporary equivalent might be a weekend evening at the movies), took a bullet for freedom -- which is to say he took a bullet for a metaphor. Frankenheimer's picture asks us to weigh which metaphors we'd be willing to take a bullet for.

I think you could watch the original "Manchurian Candidate" 10 times (or a hundred) and see something new every time, some small but potent glimmer that you can't believe you missed before. I think you deserve a medal -- even just a small, tin one -- if you can sit all the way through Demme's "Manchurian Candidate" once. The original is a strange and challenging work made up of dozens of ever-shifting layers; Demme's movie is one thick slab of heavy foam. And while every movie deserves to be taken on its own terms, independent of any previous work that inspired it, I felt so despondent through every frame of this second "Manchurian Candidate" that the memory of the earlier one kept invading my thoughts like a ghost army. Should any moviegoer be held responsible for a filmmaker's failure to reinvent his source material?

With his screenwriters, Daniel Pyne ("The Sum of All Fears") and Dean Georgaris (the lively, enjoyable "Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life"), Demme hasn't so much reinvented "The Manchurian Candidate" as he has standardized and flattened it: He's made the material safe for every American. The plot has been changed and updated, and by itself, that's not a huge problem. Denzel Washington plays Maj. Marco, who served in the Gulf War and now suffers from what he thinks is Gulf War Syndrome and post-traumatic stress disorder. He has inexplicable nightmares that, he discovers, he shares with another man from his company, Cpl. Al Melvin (Jeffrey Wright, in a small but intense, unnerving performance).

Melvin is much worse off than Marco. He can barely stammer out a whole sentence; he fills notebooks with clippings and drawings that focus specifically on another member of his and Marco's company: the stiff, socially inept Sgt. Raymond Shaw (Liev Schreiber), who returned from the Gulf a war hero and who has since reinvented himself as a sincere congressman. Shaw is happy in that role, but his mother, Eleanor Prentiss Shaw (Meryl Streep), a power-mad senator, has other plans for him. She pulls strings to get him the vice-presidential nomination, which he accepts out of a sense of duty more than desire. What she's really gunning for, of course, is the presidency itself. If her plan succeeds, her son will become the first corporate-owned American president.

In this version as in the earlier one, Shaw is his sinister mother's tool. (At one point he even refers to himself as her "sock puppet.") And as Marco discovers, she's in cahoots with a huge corporation that, blob-like, has swallowed up a major portion of the United States government, and soon, it hopes, stands to own even the president.

One major problem with "The Manchurian Candidate" is that Demme seems to think that in 2004 he can swap a big corporation for the evil Communist foes of the late '50s and early '60s and still preserve the flavor and essential meaning of the original picture. He can't, simply because the first "Manchurian Candidate" isn't about anything as simple as the dangers of anti-Communism: It's a tone poem to democratic ideals, while Demme's movie is just a conventional thriller with a leaden message.

And unlike its predecessor, this new movie is almost completely humorless. In the original, the first time you see Russian and Chinese Communist baddies reinvented as polite American ladies (of color, no less) attending a garden-club meeting, you may not even believe your eyes -- the image is so outlandish that you roll with it. This time around, Washington's Ben Marco toils listlessly in search of the truth -- his frustration and torment turn him from an upstanding soldier to a blabbering bagman almost overnight. It's an earnest, sweaty performance (Washington even perspires on cue). But Demme's mission is so serious that he doesn't have time for laughs. And Marco never emerges as a character we feel anything for: He's merely a place-marker that helps move the plot along.

Schreiber's Raymond Shaw is similarly abstruse -- it's impossible to get a read on him, and we never feel as compassionate toward him as we do to the sympathetic bastard played by Harvey in the original. Still, Schreiber is too sensitive an actor to leave us with nothing: At times you can see him working to fill out corners of his character that the writers failed to provide. The most resonant character of all may be that of Rosie, Marco's love interest, played by Kimberly Elise, who isn't afraid to put some sass and zing into her lines.

If some normally fine actors flounder in "The Manchurian Candidate," the biggest star of them all flops big-time: Streep sweeps into the role of Eleanor Prentiss Shaw with the industriousness of a high-toned cleaning lady -- that humming, swooshing sound you hear whenever she's on-screen denotes her A-1 professional-quality scrubbing. During the course of her much-lauded career, Streep has rarely let us forget that acting is work with a capital W. She's at her best when she's doing comedy: Her cartoon-swan breeziness is her great, underused gift.

But in her dramatic roles -- particularly many of her recent ones -- she's the lamest of the grand dames. As Eleanor, she's dressed in a palette of satiny grays and oysters; she often wears chunky but understated gray pearls or a glittery brooch or sometimes (the audacity!) both at once. The understatement of those outfits and accessories is a ruse that fools you into thinking Streep herself is understated, when in reality, every one of her lines has been marked up with acting-class accents and emphatically italicized syllables: "I will see you impeached on the floor of the Senate and BURY you." "I will do whatever I can to protect America from anyone who opposes HER." Streep squints and simpers flirtatiously and venomously, but nothing sticks: Her treachery always feels like a state of mind she studied hard for. To be fair to Streep, part of the problem is thoughtless casting: Streep and Schreiber have no erotic charge whatsoever. That incestuous frisson is essential to the dynamic of the relationship, but it's just another subtlety that Demme hasn't paid much attention to, except perhaps as an item on his checklist of doodads to cover.

Anyone who has followed Jonathan Demme's long and varied career knows there isn't just one Demme, but at least two. I would still say that the Demme of "Melvin and Howard" and "Something Wild" (and even of the superbly ridiculous "Married to the Mob") understood America so well -- or, more specifically, understood the crazy risks we Americans are willing to take to preserve our personal and collective metaphors of freedom -- that he'd be the best director to remake "The Manchurian Candidate." But the Demme of "The Silence of the Lambs" and "Philadelphia" -- in other words, the sanctimonious entertainer with a serious mission -- is the worst.

And unfortunately, that's the Demme we get here. This "Manchurian Candidate" isn't even remotely subversive; it merely confirms everything we already know. And although I know this wasn't Demme's intent, the movie's political idealism is so facile, so one-dimensional, that it almost becomes the exact opposite of idealism -- a kind of clinical cynicism.

There's no underlying strangeness to this "Manchurian Candidate" -- it gives us nothing to wrap our imagination around. In the movie's press materials, Demme is quoted as saying that he strove for scientific authenticity in portraying the memory manipulation and mind control that's inflicted on the characters. This "Manchurian Candidate" is less fantastical than the original and thus less believable. Because everything in it is so assiduously explained, it has a sense of order and correctness that the original doesn't: This isn't a world spinning out of control, but a world that has been knocked off its axis, artfully, so we're sure to get the point. In movie terms, it is its own craftily engineered candidate. Are we going to be smart enough, and autonomous enough, not to buy it?

By Stephanie Zacharek

Stephanie Zacharek is a senior writer for Salon Arts & Entertainment.

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