Saturday, September 4, 2010

Time for a re-see? Jonthan Demme's THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE remake

It's been six years since the initial theatrical release of Jonathan Demme's remake of  THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE, a movie I had little interest in revisiting since seeing it when it first appeared on DVD. But thanks to the recent post of my colleague Glenn Heath Jr. at his site Match Cuts, I found myself wanting to give the film another shot.  I'm glad I did -- because on a second viewing the movie seemed quite a bit better than I recalled. Interes-tingly enough and for whatever reason, I didn't remember quite a few of the scenes from the film, so they seemed remarkably fresh.) This time around I was actually moved by the end of the movie -- rather than annoyed, as I was upon my initial viewing.

I blame -- maybe praise would be more appropriate -- the timing of the film's creation and release and my own response to this. We were well into Bush fils' second term, depressed as hell, with little light glowing in a tunnel that was beginning to seem unending. And so Demme (shown at left) and his writers/adapters Daniel Pyne and Dean Georgaris (from the earlier version by George Axelrod, adapted from the Richard Condon novel) could have been accused of simply "piling it on."  Today, with an actual popularly-elected and supposedly "populist" sitting President, but so little of the promised "change" occurring, it is easier to view the film from a more dispassionate stance. From that angle, the movie catches, even more strongly now, the sense of global corporations -- and their masters -- run amok. Consequently it seems more timely than ever.

Now nearly a half-century old, the original Manchurian Candidate (1962) appeared when trust in our country and the powers-that-be was at a much higher level.  Audiences therefore could more easily be shocked -- and boy, were they! -- by what went on in this film, melodramatic and coincidental as much of it was. Now, with all that has come to light over nearly fifty years, we are not so easily bowled over, so while the new "candidate" ups the stakes, the violence and (yes) the pacing (though, in its day, the original seemed terrifically fast-moving and surprising), audiences are now way ahead of and probably even more paranoid than the plot of the new version. in which Denzel Washington (at top and just above) essays a similar role to that of Sinatra in the original.

The film's biggest problem, as is true of so many "paranoid thrillers," is that, as usual, because the bad guys control so much (can you say "everything"?), how can our hero manage to outfox and upend them?  This appears most flagrantly in the question of why they would allow Denzel's character to continue his investigation.  It would simply be so easy for them to whisk him out from under the protective custody of the character played by Liev Schreiber, shown above (it was Laurence Harvey in the original).  The movie has its own surprise in store, but only to some extent does this answers our objections.

In the role that helped make indelible the career of Angela Lansbury (a phenomenal show biz force that continues to this day),  Meryl Streep gives her usual strong performance, but for those who saw the original at its time of release, there will probably never be anything quite like Ms Lansbury.  Looking at the film now, it is as much the gleaming roster of supporting turns by actors who went on bigger acclaim that add as much luster to the movie as the leads: Vera Farmiga (below, 2004 was her breakout year), Jeffrey Wright (at bottom, and brilliant, as usual), Anthony Mackie, Pablo Schreiber, and a host of old-timers from Jon Voight to Charles Napier.

Director Demme does good  job of keeping us on our toes: Is Denzel's character a "reliable narrator," and if not, who might be a better one? Toward the finale, he tosses in a moment in which a federal agent, in search of her suspect, breaks in on a school pageant that seems to feature every icon of trust and reverence in America's history --Washington, Lincoln, the Statue of Liberty -- for a sudden, blink-of-an-eye burst of witty irony.

I wonder if you will find the scene that shows the election night crowd utterly thrilled by their candidates' victory a sad reminder of our most recent presidential election?  I did.  And this made me realize all too clearly that -- gosh, no -- we don't need any super-technology to control our fledgling politicians.  If you combine the recent Supreme Court decision that gives global corporations more power than American citizens -- allowing them to contribute endlessly to the political candidates of their choice -- with the general venality and stupidity of the American people and their "leaders," what possible use would we have for "implants" and "brainwashing"?

The Manchurian Candidate (2006) is available on DVD and Blu-Ray, as is the original 1962 version (on DVD only) -- for sale or rental.

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