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The 1962 film based on Richard Condon’s novel, The Manchurian Candidate, was a taut, pointed political thriller and it is still worth a look. But the 1962 film was rooted in events of its generation (the Cold War, McCarthyism) so its impact has become somewhat diluted over time.
The remake of the film, directed by Jonathan Demme (The Truth About Charlie, Beloved), with the original screenplay updated by Daniel Pyne and Dean Georgaris, substitutes Kuwait for Korea. Manchurian Global, an international investment corporation that is surely intended to bring to mind the Carlyle Group (the investment company that involves both the Bush and the Bin Laden families) replaces the Russians and Chinese as the enemy, making a far more elusive and sinister antagonist.
The outline of the story is still in place. But the new film adds an extra dollop of suspense by not immediately revealing the troops’ brainwashing by the enemy; rather, the focus shifts more to the character of Ben Marco (Denzel Washington; Frank Sinatra in the original) who is plagued by nightmares and resulting suspicions about what actually happened in Kuwait. His search for the truth injects extra energy into the narrative. And, in our age of advanced technology, mind control is gained not through brainwashing, but through electronic implants.
Sgt. Shaw (Liev Shreiber in the Laurence Harvey role) is still the troubled hero dominated by a mother from Hell (Meryl Streep in the Angela Lansbury role), a woman whose political ambition is exceeded only by her hubristic audacity. Here, she is a widow who has succeeded to her late husband’s seat in the Senate, a nice bit of tightening of the original plot. (Similarly, the role of Marco’s girlfriend (Kimberly Elise in the Janet Leigh role) is more cleverly integrated into the plot of the new film.)
As in the original film, the exposition is clear and suspenseful. If anything, the new version plays even more heavily into audience paranoia, with electronic spying devices everywhere, conspiracy in the air, and a growing sense that no one can be trusted, especially in a world of unprincipled power politics. (And, as in the original, the one politician of conscience is doomed to be wiped out.)
There are moments here and there that stretch credulity, but not enough to be more than momentary distractions. And the new screenplay tacks on a superfluous coda, an ending that one suspects came out of a focus group used by producers more interested in box office receipts than good movies. The new ending betrays the stark discipline of the original and weakens the overall impact.
Still, the dialogue generally has a natural ring to it; no cringe-inducing awkward artificialities detract from the dramatic tension as so often happens in thrillers. Demme gets convincing performances out of his first rate cast and production values are up to state-of-the-art Hollywood standards, if without notable imagination. But that’s all right, too; nothing gets in the way of a great story, well told, one which manages to slip in a few political digs without losing sight of its mission as popular suspense entertainment.