In a year rifle with useless recycling (The Ladykillers, The Stepford Wives), Jonathan Demme refuses to pander. Remakes are by definition acts of cowardice, pusillanimously stepping backward into the already successful (and the comfortably bankable) rather than forward into the unknown. Yet Demme's splendid update of The Manchurian Candidate, like his underrated The Truth About Charlie, is the rare kind of remake that doesn't feel like it was made simply to dip into the pockets of audiences the producers hope are too young or ignorant to remember the original. On the contrary -- the storyline, by now more than three decades old, functions not as escape valve but as template for an exploration of current quandaries. The results, far from a jaded cash-in, form an act of political engagement as lucid as any other film this year.
The first image is a claustrophobically cropped shot of a bunch of soldiers playing cards in the back of a truck to a medley of pop songs. The setting is Kuwait circa 1991, and the infernal red dust of the desert night soon switches to the green tint of nightvision as their U.S. Army squadron, led by officers Denzel Washington and Liev Schreiber, suddenly faces an enemy raid. Flash forward to Washington today, answering a Boy Scout's question before bumping into old platoon buddy Jeffrey Wright, now a mess of a man mumbling about nightmares splitting his skull apart. Washington has them, too -- dark, churning visions revolving around the Gulf War ambush, an event burning inside his head even though he remembers little about it besides being heroically saved by Schreiber.
Or was he? Now a politician rocketing toward vice-presidential candidacy, Schreiber turns out to be the tip of an iceberg of corporate skullduggery involving a conglomerate ominously dubbed Manchurian Global and puppeteered by none other than his mother, Machiavellian senator Meryl Streep. His Desert Storm derring-do is a sham perpetuated via brainwashing, so that he can be used as convenient homecoming war hero, political pawn and, when needed, zombified assassin. Not as efficiently suppressed, Washington's boiling trauma pushes him into the trail of the conspiracy and into contact with former comrade Schreiber (whose own growing recognition poses a threat to Manchurian Inc., a.k.a. Halliburton) and Kimberly Elise, whose own role (Love Interest, really) is infused with just as much ambiguity.
The film's pervasive paranoia has been linked by several critics to the post-Watergate thrillers of the '70s (The Parallax View, with its big-business villain, in particular), though a closer look reveals the tone as one less of paranoia than of disenchanted discovery, and a very present-tense one at that. Somber where the original was cartoonish, The Manchurian Candidate has a core of pain underneath the bustling patina of the thriller, the pain of disillusionment and dislocation. John Frankenheimer's 1962 original was a political satire, the giddiness of the set pieces fueled by Cold War cynicism, commie terror and misogyny (embodied quite stunningly by Angela Lansbury's monstrous harpy doting over Laurence Harvey's weakling candidate). In the remake, Demme is interested not so much in bringing the story up to date as in groping for how the same tropes are seen differently in a shaken, post-9/11 America -- to show that what has happened between 1962 and 2004 has changed the original's dark humor into despairing actuality.
It only follows logically that, from the very beginning, Demme continually contrasts America-the-ideal with America-the-reality. (Wyclef Jean sings "I ain't no senator's son" over the credits in a cover of CCR's "Fortunate Son," endowing the meaning of the lyrics with an aching trenchancy.) The characters are confused, disorientated, traumatized by the betrayal of their government (Demme's patented direct-eyeline close-ups, here brimming with impassioned anger, have never been more apt), yet united by a moral struggle that transcends class and race. Washington and Schreiber, once connected by their awareness, achieve a moment of remarkable lucidity amid the noise and confetti of political hysteria, their unspoken alliance forget through the finder of a rifle -- Frankenheimer's climax here played for tragic resonance rather than jolting thrills. The picture is a journey for clarity, and the final image lacerates -- as the unearthed truths come together in Washington's mind, the picture achieves a visual-emotional expression of outrage more pungent than many of this year's documentaries.
What is extraordinary about The Manchurian Candidate is the way Demme can express his disgust for the political situation without sacrificing his love for his country and people. Always fascinated with the beautiful plurality of American culture (from Melvin and Howard to Beloved, I can think of no other American filmmaker now who fills his canvases with so many jubilantly unique races) and the sheer singularity of human beings, Demme rounds his characters, no matter how peripheral to the narrative, with the contours of life, from Streep's magnificent gargoyle and Jon Voight's doomed politician to Simon McBurney and Bruno Ganz as the yin and yang of science. The limberness of his style and the openness of his view elevate what could have been a slick thriller into a deeply humanistic inquiry -- Demme seeks out what unites rather than what divides people in these dark times, and his critique is no less devastating for that.