Jonathan Demme's The Manchurian Candidate, a remake of John Frankenheimer's paranoid 1962 classic, pulls off two cinematic miracles. First, it gives you reason to compare a performance by Meryl Streep unfavorably with one by the one-time star of Murder, She Wrote. Second, it manages to make you vaguely regret having seen the original. Not because the remake is bad, but because it's actually pretty good.
In one sense, the new Manchurian Candidate needs the original: A number of the plot twists in the updated version make perfect sense as descants to the 1962 story, but very little in terms of the new film's internal logic. On the whole, though, the shadow cast by its progenitor tends to create an unfortunate Salieri effect, making a competent, even sporadically clever political thriller seem more thin and conventional than it is.
Consider brainwashing. Both films follow Major Bennett Marco, a combat veteran who begins to suspect that he and his unit—including Raymond Shaw, scion of a major political family—were captured and had their heads rewired years earlier. In Frankenheimer's Candidate, that rewiring is shown in a scene that even today seems groundbreaking. We first see the captured unit sitting, inexplicably, at a garden meeting of frumpy society ladies discussing horticulture. But as the camera pans around in one slow shot, we find they are suddenly seated beside a Chinese doctor waxing technical about brainwashing procedures. As he continues his lecture, the objective reality and subjective hallucination of the soldiers blend surreally: the old ladies discussing Pavlov before giant portraits of Stalin and Mao; Communist officials seated in garden chairs.
The parallel scenes in Demme's Candidate look like they were culled from the cutting room floor of Feardotcom.
The most striking difference, though, is the absence in Candidate '04 of the original's mordant humor. In many ways, both the plot and cinematography of Demme's take are more surreal and paranoid than the original's. Frank Sinatra's Bennet Marco quickly won the confidence of the military establishment that views Denzel Washington's Marco as dangerously unbalanced for most of the film. That lets Washington deploy his formidable chops, aided by hallucinatory camera work, to give the audience a deliciously uncomfortable feeling akin to being approached on the street by someone who gradually seems more and more unhinged. But it is still, in a sense, too realistic, eschewing that vertiginous mix of suspense and over-the-top camp that made Manchurian '62 not just a tortuously plotted thriller but a brilliant bit of satire to boot.
Where the bombastic McCarthyite Sen. John Iselin (played in 1962 by the great character actor James Gregory) is preposterous and dangerous in equal measure, the new movie's real villains—the Halliburtonesque Manchurian Global and its pawns—are merely sinister, making the film less effective as a really biting critique by turning the company into a stock character, the ruthless corporation. In a world where X-Files style fare is mainstream entertainment, this kind of dark conspiracy loses a lot of its bite.
The camp also throws the original movie's more serious scenes into sharp relief: The climactic scene in which Angela Lansbury's manipulative mother faces off with her son Raymond for a monologue with incestuous undertones is intense and gripping. Streep's equivalent is the one genuinely funny scene in the remake—not, alas, intentionally.
That isn't to say that the new Candidate doesn't hit a few out of the satirical stadium: An interview with candidate Shaw, a proponent of "compassionate vigilance," has him spinning soundbites that sound eerily like John Edwards' convention speech this week. And the interesting choice is made to have Streep's Rodham/Noonan hybrid villain profess at one point that she's joined forces with the Manchurian conspirators because she believes their machinations are necessary to promote America's best interests—the sort of belief that's probably done more real harm than any communist plots.
The entire world of The Manchurian Candidate, in fact, is a deftly tweaked contemporary America: familiar, but a little more frightened, a little more Foxified, a little further down the road to serfdom. Streep is not given Lansbury's line about a wave of public hysteria that would put her in the White House "with powers that will make martial law look like anarchy." But for this viewer (who, to be fair, was not around to see the original in its own context), the new Manchurian Candidate's universe next door makes that the prospect seem more plausible.
In short, however much it may suffer by comparison, Demme's vision is worth your eight bucks when it opens this Friday. Meanwhile, why don't you pass the time by playing a little solitaire?