TCS Daily


The Halliburton Candidate

By Greg Buete - August 6, 2004 12:00 AM

Note: If you plan on seeing either the original or remake of The Manchurian Candidate you might want to not read this commentary, as it will spoil plot.

Call it the Halliburton Candidate. Jonathan Demme's remake of the 1962 classic The Manchurian Candidate has all the conspiracy, but only half the suspense and none of the personality.

Full disclosure first: this writer is a huge fan of the original film, obsessed even. Many a friend has rolled his eyes as I explain for the umpteenth time that the film was the first American movie to portray a martial arts fight, or that Frank Sinatra broke his finger during the scene.

Despite reservations, I entered the theater with an open mind. I suspected the Demme version would not match the original, but would still be entertaining. I was right.

I also figured the Manchurian remake would have the standard Hollywood liberal slant, but I didn't expect a two-hour MoveOn.org fantasy.

Before the first scene even begins Wyclef Jean's rendition of Credence Clearwater Revival's Senator's Son foreshadows the message to come. For a split second I though I had entered the wrong theater -- Wait, is this a Vietnam movie?

The film immediately bombards the audience with nonstop references to profiteering military contractors, shady corporate financing, and alleged conspiracies which, in Hollywood, can only be associated with the right-wing. Just when the first yawn escapes the viewer's mouth Al Franken makes his first of several appearances.

In the 1962 version, the message is two-fold, and gives something for both sides of the political aisle to contemplate. First, it's a full-fledged attack on McCarthyism. In the original, those who most vigorously warn of the threat of Communism are actually the Communists. However, at the same time the film makes clear that Communism is a threat, not to be taken lightly or ignored. Communist conspirators are real enemies conducting a Manchurian brainwashing plot to assassinate their way into the executive branch.

However, in Demme's world the enemy is a company called Manchurian Global, a financial giant that subleases mercenaries to the Defense Department, and uses the terrorism threat to sway the choice for vice president. Compassionate conservative becomes "compassionate vigilance," and the audience learns that Manchurian Global has historic influence over a number of world leaders, including "most" American presidents since Richard Nixon. "Most," naturally, is implied to mean "Republican." For emphasis, the film displays a photograph of Bob Dole and George Bush Sr. standing alongside a Manchurian Global bigwig.

Unlike the original film, the stated threat does not exist. There are no uncompromising Islamic radicals, just right-wing ideologues and investors so greedy they're willing to commit murder for profit with no more thought than logging onto E-Trade.

In a word: tired.

How many times will Hollywood sponsor this monotonous anti-corporate plot before the American ticket purchaser collectively shouts "Okay, we get it already"?

Just once I'd like to see Hollywood make a film in which the International Red Cross and Amnesty International, backed by wealthy Sandinistas, conspire to spark a number of simultaneous school shootings by disgruntled, bullied geeks; and then use the anti-gun sentiment to convince the American public to repeal the Second Amendment, upon which time the Chinese invade the country. Sound silly? Throw in a Rush Limbaugh or Sean Hannity cameo to play the CNN interviewer and you've got the antithesis of Demme's remake.

But that's not why this Manchurian Candidate fails.

Indeed, I could have gotten past slant had the remake simply captured the brilliant acting and suspense of the original.

It shouldn't have had any problem given a billing that includes Denzel Washington, Meryl Streep, Jon Voight, and Liev Schreiber.

Where are the relationships? Where was Josie? The 1962 version goes to great lengths to show, not tell, that Raymond Shaw and Josie Jordan have a deep, loving relationship. Thus, in Demme's version, when Raymond is forced to murder Josie the audience doesn't feel his sense of loss afterward because the bond between the two lovers was never developed.

Most important of all, it is Raymond's grief for his dead lover that allows him to eventually break the brainwash and end the conspiracy. In the remake this is all lost because Josie's role is barely more than that of an extra.

We don't know why Raymond must murder Josie because Demme excludes the original film's sequence in which the brainwashers, almost by chance, program him to kill any bystanders should he be "discovered at the scene of an assignment."

And because the remake fails to develop Raymond's relationship with Josie we never understand Raymond's hatred for his mother.

Likewise, the original invests many frames to convince the viewers that the bond between Ben Marco and Raymond Shaw has strengthened from two soldiers who detested one another to friends willing to sacrifice for one another. While Washington and Schreiber are excellent actors the script gave them nothing to work with, unlike the opportunity given to Frank Sinatra and Lawrence Harvey.

Meryl Streep's performance as the scheming mother, Eleanor Shaw, is missing the intensity that Angela Lansbury brought the role. It's not that Streep does a bad job. She just doesn't match Lansbury, whose breathtaking performance earned her an Oscar nomination and Golden Globe award.

Considering the amount of slant in the film one shouldn't be surprised to learn that in preparation of the role Streep mostly studied conservatives, including Ronald Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan, columnist Ann Coulter, and George W. Bush's former adviser, Karen Hughes. Maybe Streep should have spent less time studying political figures and more time studying Lansbury.

But one can't blame Streep for lackluster lines. The script offered to Lansbury was far superior.

Nowhere does this lack of script become more obvious then with Demme's secondary villains. In the original the villains are filled with charisma. When not programming Raymond to become the perfect assassin, Dr. Yen Lo of the Pavlov Institute engages in Macy's shopping trips to meet the demands of his wife's "most appalling list" and constantly takes humorous jabs at his always nervous co-conspirator, Zilkov.

Likewise, the original film's portrayal of the brainwashing sequence and trigger mechanism was unique. The victims' recollection is a dream in which a group of ladies, whose race depends upon the race of the soldier, is discussing the plot at what appears to be a flower show. As the sequence unravels their true identities -- as Russian, Chinese and North Korean conspirators -- are revealed. The game solitaire becomes the trigger mechanism.

In the remake the trigger is anticlimactic and we never see the full brainwashing, or a demonstration before other villains. This was a grand opportunity missed in an age where technology could have enhanced the scene to frightening and captivating levels.

In summation, Demme's Manchurian Candidate is neither personable nor that spooky. All in all, the film is worthy of a "Blockbuster night," but cannot hold a candle to the original.

Like some others in Hollywood today, Demme is more interested in promoting an agenda than making a great movie. Maybe that's good for Hollywood, but it's bad for the person who dropped $8 expecting a more fulfilling film.

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