Gulf war veteran Major Ben Marco is having unsettling flashbacks about his experiences in Kuwait whilst a former platoon member and winner of the Congressional Medal of Honour, Sergeant Raymond Shaw, is now a New York congressman angling for vice-president in the upcoming presidential election. This is the premise upon which Jonathan Demme unfolds his latest film, The Manchurian Candidate.
Jonathan Demme, a 60-year-old New Yorker, who won an Oscar for The Silence Of The Lambs and directed Philadelphia amongst other films, bravely does what Brian De Palma and Neil Jordan chose not to do, remake perhaps the greatest political thriller of all time, John Frankenheimer’s 1962 classic The Manchurian Candidate. Frankenheimer first found fame and commercial success in 1962 with The Birdman Of Alcatraz. The Manchurian Candidate followed in the same year and starred Frank Sinatra, Laurence Harvey and Angela Lansbury. Frankenheimer, who had served in the Korean War, was a perfect choice to direct a film based on Richard Condon’s 1959 novel that dealt with brainwashing and the politics of power in the Cold War era. George Axelrod, who had gained fame for Breakfast At Tiffany’s and who also wrote The Seven Year Itch and Bus Stop, adapted the novel for the screen.
Enter Demme and screenwriters Daniel Pyne (Sum Of All Fears) and Dean Georgaris (Paycheck), who decide to contemporise the story with a post-1991 Gulf War setting where powerful, wealthy corporations (think Halliburton, Tyco and Enron) are the unseen enemy seeking to abuse political power and who choose mind control as their method of choice. Denzel Washington is cast in the Frank Sinatra role as Ben Marco. Meryl Streep, aged 55 and still going from strength-to-strength while possibly looking to add to her Oscar haul, is in the Angela Lansbury role and plays Senator Eleanor Prentiss Shaw. Liev Schreiber (Sum Of All Fears), considered by some to be the American Kenneth Branagh, is cast in the Laurence Harvey role as Sergeant Raymond Shaw, aspirational senator. Supporting players include Kimberley Elise, Jon Voight, Bruno Ganz and there’s even a small role for author Walter Mosley.
The latest version of The Manchurian Candidate is a well-acted, stylish but ultimately flawed genre flick. It is a return to form for Demme but it just isn’t anywhere near a political satire nor does it have an edgy sense of dread that made the original so brilliant. Meryl Streep, who no doubt will get her 14th Oscar nomination, is riveting as the bitch-from-hell mother-cum-politician who is a cross between Lady Macbeth and Hillary Rodham Clinton. Perhaps the problem is that, in 2004, a film about corrupt corporations who buy and sell politicians is just too old hat.