30 Minutes on The Manchurian Candidate

May contain spoilers
Paramount Pictures

Jonathan Demme's 2004 political thriller "The Manchurian Candidate," about a brainwashed war veteran who becomes an assassin, underwhelmed audiences and critics in its original run, maybe because it's a remake of a 1962 classic that had enjoyed a hugely successful re-release less than two decades earlier, vaulting it out of cult classic status and into the canon. Demme was filling big shoes by directing his own version of a film regarded as the great John Frankenheimer's masterpiece. But from the opening credits sequence—a laid-back, almost documentary-styled account of 1991 Gulf War infantry playing cards in the back of an all-terrain vehicle—you can see that Demme and his collaborators aren't in this to one-up the king. For all its uncharacteristic (for Demme) visual, musical, and editing razzle-dazzle, a times verging on Oliver Stone-style sensory overload, this is another of the director's excursions into radical empathy. It replaces the original's corrosive satire with a sensitive, at times despairing portrait of people losing their autonomy, made to dance like marionettes by masters too sneaky to identify and too strong to attack head-on.

Denzel Washington, who anchored Demme's 1993 drama "Philadelphia" and has been a familiar face in military thrillers (including "The Siege" and "Courage Under Fire"), stars as Captain Bennett "Ben" Marco, commander of an abducted and brainwashed Gulf War combat unit that included Lt. Raymond Shaw (Liev Schreiber). Ben comes to believe that something is off about his own memory of what happened overseas, and hopes Raymond can help him unlock the mystery. 

Perhaps assuming that anybody seeing this movie will have already Googled the original, the filmmakers junk any pretense of mystery and quickly confirm that the abducted soldiers became pawns in a conspiracy. Their endgame is to remake Raymond, a stick-in-the-mud officer and mediocre soldier, into a Congressional Medal of Honor winner by inventing heroic details about his war service, then having the men in his unit robotically repeat them. Then they'll spend a few years grooming Shaw as a Congressman, then install him as the vice presidential candidate of a major party. 

The original "Manchurian Candidate" built a layer cake of anxiety and fear atop Raymond's phony war record, making him a pawn in a right-wing, McCarthy-esque scheme that somehow involved actual Russian and Chinese operatives. The bad guys here are more earthbound: a conglomerate that's basically Halliburton, a company that deals in engineering, petroleum, mercenary services, military prison cells, internment camps, and other goods and services related to war. In 2003, Halliburton was awarded a $7 billion, no-bid Iraq War contract even though the sitting US Vice President, Dick Cheney, had been on the company's board of directors just three years earlier. A similar but even more powerful company in the film, Manchurian Global, seems have its tentacles in every part of the world economy, including journalism (exposition is often conveyed via snippets of inflammatory right-wing "news," on a cable outlet modeled on then eight-year-old Fox News Channel).

The film loses suspense and mystery by giving us the essence of the conspiracy up front, but it gains dramatic power. Front-loading the plot lets Demme concentrate on what happens to the major characters psychologically and emotionally while they try to verify what they already suspect, then expose the wrongdoers. It's a rough, often tragic road. Ben is a working class guy who—like the other survivors of a unit decimated by suicides and mysterious deaths—seems to be drifting, enduring the same scary dream each night. Raymond is living a more posh, shielded life. He's the only son of former senator Eleanor Prentiss (Meryl Streep, channeling Hillary Clinton by way of Lady Macbeth), and has been groomed since birth to do his mother's bidding—but he's a wreck with a pasty, sad grin, impersonating a man who can make small talk at a party without wanting to throw up.

Although the movie's first obligation is always to surprise and delight us and keep the story moving along, we immediately grasp that Demme, as usual, is more interested in the characters' struggles. What ensues is a journey to the heart of madness, exposing a secret cabal that manipulates world events by presenting lies as truth; but Demme and company never lose track of the suffering inflicted on the individuals unlucky enough to be chosen as cast members in a global drama by unseen playwrights. Demme's sure hand with a big ensemble has rarely been stronger. In addition to Washington and Schrieber's heartbreaking work as traumatized men bonded by abuse, the film boasts a standout heel turn by Streep as a political powerhouse-turned-stage mother from Hell (complete with a delightful witchy cackle and inappropriate glances at her onscreen son). The supporting cast is stacked with character actors who have anchored smaller films, including Dean Stockwell, Miguel Ferrer, Charles Napier, Bruno Ganz, Ann Dowd, and Kimberly Elise (as a revised version of Rosie, the character played by Janet Leigh in the original). 

The film has a rare sense of real-world New York atmosphere, especially when contrasting the pampered hotel suites and four-star restaurants of whitest, richest Manhattan with the grit and noise of black, working-class Brooklyn blocks where Ben tries to nail down facts and fill up gaps in his memory. The movie is also unusually attentive to the lived details of post-traumatic stress disorder, in particular the obscene images that war sears onto the brain, and the disconnectedness and loneliness that afflict combat veterans. Their poster child is another man from Ben and Raymond's unit, Cpl. Al Melvin (Jeffrey Wright). He appears at the start of the film, an accusing specter in the vein of Jacob Marley in "A Christmas Carol," head oddly averted, trudging along as if burdened by invisible chains. Al's haunted stare (one of the best uses of Demme's patented looking-right-at-you closeups) challenges Ben to look beyond the official story he's been repeating. In contrast to the typical "hero's progress" narrative, as well as the "detective pieces together the mystery" format, Ben's mission to expose the truth and force others to validate it turns him into another marginalized, discredited crank. The closer he gets the to truth, the more powerless he becomes.

There's a sophisticated race and class critique embedded in this remake, even though Demme is too subtle to shine a spotlight on it. As the rumpled, muttering, increasingly desperate black man starts intruding on the margins of the more powerful white man's existence, even showing up unannounced at his campaign headquarters, he starts to seem like a new incarnation of Al, a broken man whose journals and apartment wall are festooned with images and text that try to impose order on the chaos of his life. There are journalistic accounts of conversations; expressive phrases scribbled without context; fragments of what could be poetry; beautiful/hideous line drawings of close-quarters violence; even images that seem inspired by H.P. Lovecraft fiction or David Cronenberg movies (such as a man's head obscured by tentacles that seem to have sprouted from his neck like palm fronds). Rarely has the folkloric phrase "any black man who isn't paranoid is crazy" been more vividly illustrated by a big-budget Hollywood movie.

The sense that reality is cracking open to reveal hidden evil and madness comes through in the filmmaking. If the original was a early prototype of the paranoid thriller—a subgenre that hit its peak in the 1970s with classics like "The Parallax View," "Three Days of the Condor" and "All the President's Men"—Demme's "Manchurian" remake feels like a culmination of everything filmmakers learned while working in that format over the next four decades (including Stone's "JFK" and "Nixon"). Demme, screenwriters Daniel Pyne and Dean Georgaris, regular cinematographer Tak Fujimoto (in his last Demme credit), and editors Carol Littleton and Craig McKay create an experience that feels elusive and subjective (unreliable) even as it delivers the periodic story nuggets that mass audiences require (though not enough of them, apparently; the movie was a box-office dud). The editing often cross-cuts between Raymond and Ben's stories, to establish that they're both pawns in the same wicked scheme and have been messed with in similar ways. Demme tilts the camera and cut at odd moments to disorient the audience, and his postproduction team fills the soundtrack with overlapping dialogue and music cues that compete with each other. The score often plays over a song that characters hear at a party, or in a crowded restaurant or bar. Because you can't focus on either piece of music, you feel as anxious and attacked as Ben. 

The totality puts across the idea that modern life is so packed with information/data/noise/images—all coming at us at once, like it or not—that we're teetering on the brink of derangement at all times anyway. It might not be that hard to nudge someone like Raymond or Ben off the cliff and into the canyon if your goal is to break and remake them. 

The film only falters in its final few minutes, a denouement that feels at odds with the bleak yet compassionate tone of what came before. If the rest of the picture presents the characters' experiences as an existential struggle in which you have to just do the best you can even if you know you're overmatched, the ending retreats into "all's well that ends well" hopefulness. Considering how vividly "The Manchurian Candidate" has depicted the treacherousness of 21st century life until then, the final pivot into conventionality feels like a lie that we've been commanded to imbibe and repeat, like the soldiers from Ben and Raymond's old unit chanting in unison about things that never happened.

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Matt Zoller Seitz

Matt Zoller Seitz is the Editor at Large of RogerEbert.com, TV critic for New York Magazine and Vulture.com, and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in criticism.

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