The Manchurian Candidate
How I stopped worrying and learned to love the (global private equity) Funds
Back in the days before the moon landings, Watergate and a year before the assassination of JFK, a successful TV director made a film, starring Frank Sinatra, about a Korean-war hero who had been brainwashed into becoming a communist-controlled sleeper. John Frankenheimer's original satire of cold war paranoia garnered glowing reviews. Legendary New York film critic Pauline Kael referred to it as "most sophisticated political satire ever made in Hollywood".
However, the original was a commercial flop. It was released during the Cuban Missile Crisis. In cinema, as in politics, a week is a long time.
Johnathan (Silence of the Lambs) Demme's new Manchurian Candidate (2004) is a glossy Gulf war update, but thematically similar to Frankenheimer's original film. Sgt. Marco (Denzel Washington) returns from his tour of duty, but suffers from terrifying nightmares which call into question the accuracy of his memories of that Gulf war. He appeals to his old captain, Raymond Shaw, whose medal-of-honor winning exploits have recently propelled him into a vice-presidential candidacy, but slowly realises that Shaw's politically-perfect career may well have been engineered, through brain-washing techniques, by his manipulative mother (Meryl Streep) in conjunction with a shadowy corporate consortium.
With more than a nod to the political zeitgeist, there are overt references to profiteering from military contracts, the fuelling of the soldier-hero myth, and the Manchuria of the original (part of Northern China) has been replaced by 'Manchurian Global', a private equity fund (a thinly-disguised amalgam of Carlyle Group and Halliburton).
Frank Sinatra's Sgt. Marco has been replaced by an unhinged Denzel Washington, a casting decision that would not have been possible without an adoring public's knowledge of PTSD and Gulf War syndrome, while the Candidate himself, Raymond Shaw, is humanised by an impressive performance by Liev Schreiber.
He updates the character using Daniel Pyne's excellent script to be altogether more self-cognisant than Laurence Harvey's original, with an understanding that a certain amount of ideological expediency is necessary to succeed politically, while Meryl Streep's portrayal of Raymond's mother, the role which won Angela Lansbury an Oscar nomination, is barbed and wickedly stylish.
The post-McCarthy fears of global communism have been replaced by the media-stoked fear of global terrorism. Slick motion graphics at the Candidate's nomination scream a "Secure Tomorrow", while CGI renderings of the candidate's visage embedded in Mount Rushmore, trumpet campaign-trail hubris.
On its pre-US election release last year, Demme was accused of political provocation. Given the tempestuous political climate at the time, this was hardly surprising. But for a European viewer at least, it's hard to tell the difference between the candidates or parties. It's a credit to Pyne's update that Republicans were convinced that Meryl Streep represented Hillary Clinton, while those with left-leaning credentials saw the spectre of Dubya in Schreiber's character. One of the film's key messages is that all political candidates have been homogenised by the focus-group obsessed parties.
Is this remake better than the original Manchurian Candidate? It's certainly more successful. One of the best lines in the movie, delivered by an impatient Meryl Streep to her son, explains the disposability of political killers: "The assassin always dies, baby. It's necessary for the national healing". The commercial failure of the original, might have been a pre-condition for this topical remake's success.
Wai Mun Yoon