Jonathan Demme’s gutsy The Manchurian Candidate is the anti-Bush administration movie for those who missed Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11. It’s a re-make of John Frankenheimer’s 1962 film about a brainwashed assassin who wants his father-in-law to be made President. Usually, cinema classic re-makes are thoroughly disappointing – but not this one.
Demme opens his movie during the Gulf War, as Bennett Marco (Academy Award winner, Denzel Washington) leads his platoon into Kuwait during a routine recce mission. Among his soldiers is Sergeant Raymond Shaw (Liev Schreiber) the aloof son of a powerful conservative senator played by Meryl Streep. In eerie dream sequences, that are sometimes grotesque flashbacks, we learn that the squad is ambushed and taken to a faraway base on a remote island, where men in white overcoats treat them to the ‘special’. Their brains are washed and implanted with mind-control devices that make them do horrible things to their own comrades. Of course, we already know this – we’ve seen the original. It’s how the film-makers alter the inevitable that makes this Candidate so good.
When they return to the United States, Shaw is a war hero, given the Medal of Honour for saving his squad during the ambush. Marco and the men who survived are racked by nightmares of what really happened. Marco, who’s been promoted to Major, has really lost it – living on nothing but noodles, keeping his glasses together with masking tape and finding no-one within the army to believe his story. Unlike Sinatra’s more heroic Marco in the original, Washington has no allies apart from dead men who can’t corroborate his tale. Demme and screenwriters, Daniel Pyne and Dean Georgaris, have turned a tragic hero into a desperate lunatic, to the point that we’re not even sure we can trust Marco’s memories of what happened during the war.
Things don’t click in the conclusion, which turns out to be less tidy than you’d hope. But, all in all, it’s a good thriller.