First came the great Richard Condon novel, next came the excellent John Frankenheimer film. Four stars to both of them. So what could have been going on in the addled Hollywood minds that thought they could do something even better in a remake?
The straight and simple answer is that they couldn't. But there's no nasty negative follow-up to that statement. Jonathan Demme's take on The Manchurian Candidate isn't going to knock the first film off the pedestal upon which it stands -- that film, with Frank Sinatra doing admirable work, and both Laurence Harvey and Angela Lansbury hitting acting grand slams, is still a hell of a movie-watching experience. But the current remake does stand up proudly, if ever-so-slightly stoop-shouldered, next to it.
The Korean War setting of the early 1950s has switched to the Gulf War setting of the early 1990s. Certain characters have come and gone or been shifted around, but the new version of the film still sticks with a swirling mix of presidential politics, brainwashing, paranoia, a problematic mother-son relationship and a heady case of good versus evil.
Kicking off with a searing Wyclef Jean version of John Fogerty's "Fortunate Son" over the credits, the film opens with a frightening vision of war and what can go wrong in the blink of an eye. The fact that the event portrayed is one of utter confusion leads directly to the mood and flavor of what's to come.
Now, more than a decade later, Major Marco (Denzel Washington), who was the commanding officer back then, is speaking proudly and with authority about his wartime experiences to a Boy Scout troop. But a visit from a former member of his fighting unit -- a very disturbed fellow -- reveals that Marco, no matter how high he holds his head or praises his country or acts as a role model, is rather disturbed, himself.
He is one of the two major male characters in the story, and Washington, always able to be counted on for a good performance, here gives a great one. His Marco has a range that runs from a man who is totally in control of his life to someone who is utterly, helplessly confused. He spends most of the film walking around in a daze.
The other male character is former Sergeant Shaw (Liev -- pronounced Lee-Ev -- Schreiber), now a Congressman who is being groomed -- make that relentlessly pushed -- toward the title of Vice President of the United States by his mother, the powerful Senator Shaw (Meryl Streep). Also a member of Marco's unit, he was the man who saved everyone when things went wrong, went on to become a hero, a Congressional Medal of Honor winner and now a politician. Early clues hint that there might also be something wrong with him. Schrieber's performance, his best since his understated one in A Walk on the Moon, is even more astonishing than Washington's. His mood range, displayed mostly on his face, once or twice through voice inflection, goes from bright and happy to frighteningly outraged.
The questions in the film are numerous. What actually happened in Kuwait, not just in the battle that's shown, but afterward? What is going on, many levels down, in the minds of Marco and Shaw? Why are all of these Washington heavies so fearful of Senator Shaw?
Which brings us to the major female character in the film. Originally played by Angela Lansbury, who got the Oscar nomination but lost to the sentimentality vote and Patty Duke's performance in The Miracle Worker, Meryl Streep now goes at it with aplomb-plus. She's had juicy roles before, but this one is absolutely dripping with it. Don't cross this character; if you do, be ready either to cower or to run.
At its root, the film is about power and corruption, but slowly and steadily, an urgent creepiness sets in, then never leaves. Anyone who's squeamish will also want to know that, in small measure, it's also about needles, skull drills, knives, and electro-shock therapy. Fitting right into contemporary times, director Jonathan Demme fills the background with glimpses of TV ads for political campaigns and audio snatches of radio newscasts, often talking about the war on terror.
Demme makes the characters in the film nervous, never ready to trust one another, and he makes the viewer nervous by shooting them in weird, sweaty close-ups, often staring his characters straight in the face. This is accompanied by soundtrack music that floats in and hovers behind the dialogue, making everything even more nerve-wracking through the use of eerie, shimmering strings.
Like the original, this is all designed as a massive, complex puzzle, with pieces and patterns that very slowly emerge. But unlike the original -- a near perfect film -- the all-important ending in this one is murky. It actually offers too many answers to not enough questions.