Our country faces truly unprecedented danger from Islamist terrorists, potentially equal to the nuclear threat that was posed by Soviet Russia. Yet in the remake of "The Manchurian Candidate," the Communist brainwashing of the Richard Condon novel and the 1962 original film version is replaced by a multinational, Halliburton-like corporation! Yes, left-wing hate America Hollywood is at it again.
The brainwashing of our troops is transposed from the Korean War to the Gulf War. Despite his lack of military virtue, Sergeant Raymond Shaw (Liev Schreiber) wins the Congressional Medal of Honor on account of the testimony of his brainwashed platoon. And now this pseudo-hero finds himself vaulted into his party's vice presidential nomination -- thanks to the heavy lifting of his Hillary and Teresa Heinz Kerry-like, power crazed mom, Senator Eleanor Prentiss Shaw (Meryl Streep). Her man-eater is so ferocious she makes the man-eating femme fatales of forties film noirs seem like pristine fifties housewives by comparison.
But Shaw's commander, Major Marco (Denzel Washington), who also has been brainwashed, knows, somehow, that things are not right. If only he could unravel the secret buried in the bizarre nightmares that torment him, he could find out if he is deranged, as his superiors claim, or if something very real and serious is afoot.
Director Jonathan Demme takes this sensationalist material and screws it up into a fever pitch that starts at maximum high and doesn't let up for the rest of the film's more than two hours. Even in this day, when many directors have foresworn any subtlety in favor of beating the audience's sensibilities into submission, Demme's direction is a bit much. One close-up after another after another -- by the end the viewer knows every pore of Denzel Washington's face -- is the precise opposite of classical Hollywood filmmaking, when the best directors enveloped us in their tale with artful, often understated, story-telling and compelling visual imagery. (What Hitchcock could have done with a story like this!) These artists often employed distance to hook the viewer and make him a participant in the drama, reserving close-ups as punctuation marks for climactic dramatic moments. (Classic films generally had at most a handful of close-ups.)
Perhaps one reason why many films are made in this crude fashion is the pathetically cheap scale of the modern multiplex movie theater (an example of what I call the "McDonalds-ization" of America). Endless extreme close-ups and other tight shots easily fill the typical screen, which is so small one really might as well save one's money, wait a few months and watch the film at home on television. There rarely are any visual highlights that will be lost on the home screen. In today's moviegoing, many directors take advantage of the small confines not only by inundating us with the tight shots, but also by overwhelming our sensibilities with the drumbeat of Dolby sound, and, of course, brutally graphic violence and sex.
In "The Manchurian Candidate" we are treated to close shots of one soldier being choked to death, and of the drowning of the heroic (liberal, of course) Senator, played by Jon Voight, and his daughter, at the hands of the vice presidential candidate, no less. (Remember that Demme is the Oscar-winning director of the despicable cannibalism movie, "The Silence of the Lambs".)
The brainwashing plot is the creation of the gorgon Senator, devised in league with her big campaign contributor, the evil multinational, "Manchurian Global." Having pressured the party into giving the vice presidential nomination to her callow "hero" son, who is now a young congressman, they plan to have the still programmed Marco assassinate the presidential candidate on election night so that she can rule when the zombie boy succeeds to the presidency. (When the platoon was kidnapped during the Gulf War, a surgeon -- a white South African -- inserted mind control implants into each soldier.) Unfortunately, Demme's unending in-our-face direction is not interested in pace or rhythm, so he does not build up effectively to the dramatic climax inherent in the story. The film is poorer for that.
It is even worse because Demme and his writers could not control their obvious detestation of their country. As noted, the Communist villain is replaced not by the Islamist villain but by one of our own corporations. (The name, Manchurian Global, is needed to retain the title, even though it makes no sense. Does anyone know of, say, a Szechuan Enterprises listed on any stock exchange, other than perhaps one in China?) Further, at the end, our intelligence agencies are seen covering-up the identity of the hero who ultimately foils the Senator's conspiracy with Manchurian Global to seize the White House. Instead, the "good guys" are seen fabricating new assassins -- framed employees of Manchurian -- in order to cover up the whole mess. As Senator Shaw cracks earlier in the film, in an obvious Oliver Stone-like pander to Kennedy assassination conspiracy freaks, "That's the way [assassinations] are done."
Comparison with the 1962 original is revealing. In the first film, the platoon is betrayed by a Korean guide/interpreter into the hands of the Russian and Chinese reds in Manchuria. Our men, seated before huge hanging photographs of Stalin and Mao, are brainwashed into mind control. Then we are taken back to the present; the war has ended and the men are home, but they are not well. Unlike the persistent skepticism of Marco's commanders in the remake, early on in the original the military comes to appreciate that Marco (Frank Sinatra) is on to something and they actively help him unravel the conspiracy. And this is where the two versions really diverge. In 1962, it is led by a fanatical super-patriot, Mrs. Iselin (Angela Lansbury); the presidential candidate is to be shot to death so that her Joe McCarthy-like, red-baiting alcoholic husband, Senator Iselin (James Gregory), can be installed in the White House. Her son, Staff Sergeant Shaw (Laurence Harvey), who despises his stepfather-Senator, and hates his mother, is to be the assassin. But, unlike the remake, Mrs. Iselin's role is not revealed until late in the film. The scene is directed mainly with subtle shadows employed by the film's black and white photography. The slow, steady unfolding of the plot by director John Frankenheimer and screenwriter George Axelrod gives this scene that much more impact; their deliberate pacing up to this point also makes more compelling the faster pace of the remainder of the film as it builds up to its edge-of-seat climax. This version's careful construction ultimately overcomes the film's contrivances, including an extraneous love interest for Sinatra (Janet Leigh), as well as the questionable casting of Harvey, a British actor.
Three other differences between the versions should be noted. First, in the original the treatment of violence is predictably artful and indirect. For example, when Shaw, during his mind control training, is ordered by his captors mechanically to shoot one fellow soldier in the head, the director immediately cuts to the big photo of Stalin behind as it is stained by the spurting blood. In the remake, the violence is typically graphic, literal and crude. Second, the original is more linear in its plot exposition. The brainwashing is seen near the beginning, whereas the remake interrupts its narrative with many more flashbacks. Structuralist critics like to note the greater use of interrupted narrative in films as an indication of a more complex view of reality, which is a reasonable point as far as it goes. But in the hands of Demme, the technique is used for shock effect more than anything else.
Third, and more important, the 1962 version ends with a powerful catharsis, in contrast with the cheaply cynical finale of the remake, which is intended to leave the audience at loose ends, hopeless, with nothing to grab on to. In the 1962 hero's rediscovery of his true, good self and in his final self-sacrifice, everything is made whole and moral order is restored. Here we have the reversal, recognition and suffering that in the Poetics Aristotle identifies as the three elements of the tragic plot.
As with so many remakes of the past two decades, the differences from the original versions made before the cultural cataclysm of the sixties and seventies give concrete, vivid evidence of the moral decline of American popular culture and society. They demonstrate how we have fallen. We have to ask if and how we can summon the will to achieve a restoration.