American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
Corporations, not commies, are the sinister force behind Jonathan Demme's "The Manchurian Candidate," in which poor Raymond Shaw is told by a liberal senator: "You are about to become the first privately owned and operated vice president of the United States." There's a level of cynicism here that is scarier than the Red Chinese villains in John Frankenheimer's 1962 classic. It's a stretch to imagine a communist takeover of America, but the idea that corporations may be subverting the democratic process is plausible in the age of Enron.
Demme is not shy about suggesting parallels with current politics, and he borrows a neat bit of indirection from Frankenheimer: In the 1962 version, communists posed as anti-communists to drum up hysteria that could be used to subvert American freedoms. In the new version, right-wingers pose as liberals to win office while neutering the left. Meryl Streep plays Sen. Eleanor Shaw, who has sold her soul to the Manchurian Global Corp. A stage mother from hell, she pushes her son Raymond (Liev Schreiber) into the vice presidency; a timely assassination will make him president. Raymond has a chip implanted in his skull which will allow Manchurian to control him.
This plan is on track and will succeed, unless two men can make sense of their nightmares. Ben Marco (Denzel Washington) and Al Melvin (Jeffrey Wright) both fought in the Gulf War, as members of a patrol that was saved by the heroism of Sgt. Shaw -- whose Medal of Honor launched his political career. But did Shaw really save them? Marco and Melvin have fragmented nightmares of an alternate reality. Marco notes that all the patrol members use identical words to describe their experience. "I remember that it happened," Shaw confesses to Marco, "but I don't remember it happening."
Audiences of the earlier film will know that during the patrol's missing days, as Marco eventually concludes, "Somebody got into our minds with chainsaws." The brainwashing is front-loaded in Demme's version; it's revealed fairly early, perhaps because he and his writers concluded there was no use being coy about a secret that most of the audience already knows. Instead, Demme wisely conceals other secrets, leading to a wickedly different ending just when you think you know everything that will happen.