Manchurian Candidate (2004)
I’m usually not a big fan of remakes, those films that seek to boost their own box office by standing on the shoulders of a previous, better made film. More often than not film denoted as‘re-imagined’ turns out to be a euphemism for lack of imagination. This trend has regrettably become and increasing methodology in the film industry all but supplanting the concept of originality. As it is with many generalizations there are a few exceptions to prove the rule. In some cases the exemption is granted when the original story is such a classic that it deserves to be reinterpreted by subsequent generations. This frequently occurs with the works of William Shakespeare but does extend beyond the works of The Bard. Recently I revisited an old favorite, ‘The Manchurian Candidate’, the 1962 original version. It is a defining film of the cold war era representative of the post McCarthy era communist paranoia. The movie had an emotional impact that in many ways indicative of the time with many aspects specific to the then prevalent socio-political mood that pervaded the nation. The movie was remade in 2004, long after Joseph McCarthy was relegated to a chapter in the history books. The once dreaded Soviet Union had fallen under its own bureaucratic weight as symbolized by the tearing down of the last major symbol of the Soviet plan to control the world, the Berlin wall. I have enjoyed this remake due mostly to a talented cast and tight direction but I thought it would be interesting to re-watch it soon after revisiting the 1962 version to see how the story would hold up in a post Communist threat world. Although this more recent variation falls short of the drive and punch of the original the 2004 release stands up on its own with a strength and sense of purpose that is exceedingly rare in re-imagined films. Fans of the original will be split in how they perceive this film. It is natural to make comparisons to the 1962 version but this movie deserves consideration based on its own merits. Some of the fear invoking psychological manipulation has been updated to encompass phobias common to this day and age but that is consistent with a new generation making a classic their own.
The first element to face modernization is moving the war from Korea to Operation Desert Storm. This also mandates a change in the source of the evil plot that serves as the driving force for the story. In the modern world the fear of Communist takeover has largely been replaced by sprawling global corporations working behind the scenes to manipulate national governments. In order to justify retaining the title of the film the insidious organization here is the Manchurian Global Corporation. This necessary alteration is consistent with a story being re-tooled to invoke a similar emotion response with the audience. While corporate evil is the basis of many conspiracy theories it is not as wide spread or deeply engrained in our culture as Communalism was. This did lessen the force of the modern film. Sergeant First Class Raymond Shaw (Liev Schreiber) returned from service in Kuwait hailed as a hero. He purportedly rescued all but two members of his unit when they were ambushed by enemy fire. The commanding officer was Bennett "Ben" Marco (Denzel Washington) who puts Shaw in for the ‘Medal of Honor’. This highest of honors certified Shaw as a war hero propelling him into a successful political career. This personalizes the story but shifting the titular candidate from Shaw’s step father, as played out in the original, to Shaw himself.
The socio-political environment used as a setting here is eerily familiar to the McCarthy era as well as pronounced similarities to our own cultural mood. The general feeling of the population is distrustful of foreigners and a draconian military presence in civilian quarters. A former member of the unit tells Macro about strange, recurring dreams resulting in Marco’s starting to doubt the glowing recommendations he has given concerning Shaw. Things begin to come to a boil when Connecticut Senator Tom Jordan (Jon Voight) is considered the front runner for their party’s Presidential nominee. That is until Shaw’s mother, Virginia Senator Eleanor Shaw (Meryl Streep) convinces the party leaders to give the nod to her son. The controlling mechanism used here also brings the fear of Brainwashing into the new millennium. Instead of just the harsh psychological manipulation used in the original the Manchurian corporation utilizes nanotechnology to reprogram their victim to do their bidding. This is made possible by the extensive nanotechnology division of the company.
One aspect of this production that excels is the casting. Washington was just off a well deserved Academy Award for ‘Training Day’ and this portrayal demonstrates his incredible range as an actor, in ‘Training Day’ he played a sinister, driven man that is self assured and driven. In his role as Marco Washington becomes a man haunted by a cloudy past and pushed to the edge by uncertainty. He plays well off of Schreiber, easily one of the best character actors around today. When you throw an actress the caliber of Meryl Streep into the mix and you have a juggernaut cast driving the story. The original was directed by John Frankenheimer, one of the best Cold War era directors who helped define the cinematic climate of the time. Taking over the reins here was Jonathan Demme. He won an Oscar for his direction of ‘Silence of the Lambs’ and came close for his work in ‘Philadelphia’. Demme has earned a reputation for forceful character driven films that pull the audience into an emotionally charged films that lay the ground work for the best performance from the greatest actors around. For best effect make a day of it and watch both versions back to back, you will be amazed at how the details may have change but the fear remains.