Last week I attended a private screening of filmmaker Jonathan Demme’s remake of the legendary 1962 political thriller, The Manchurian Candidate. Watching any media heavy, Washington-based film is sometimes an event unto itself. Watching it with dozens of professional media analysts is something else entirely. It’s enough to turn a raging optimist into Mr. Cranky before the film’s opening credits have finished rolling.
The original Manchurian Candidate stars Frank Sinatra as Korean War veteran Ben Marco, who must stop an assassination attempt on a presidential candidate. Sinatra’s nemesis is portrayed by Angela Lansbury, who has collaborated with the Chinese in brainwashing her own stepson into becoming an assassin. Replacing the Chinese in Demme’s version is military conglomerate Manchurian Global, a sort of Halliburton-Carlyle Group hybrid. Never mind that China is still an active Communist nation that has only grown in power. Unfettered capitalism is the real threat here. Even Manchurian Global’s boss bears a striking resemblance to Halliburton CEO David Lesar.
Never a good sign, the film opens with a subpar remake of a dated rock song. In this case, it’s Wyclef Jean’s reggae rock version of John Fogerty’s “Fortunate Son.” Jean’s handiwork is advertised early and prominently in the film’s opening credits, a second nail in the cinematic credibility coffin, before the film’s first character is introduced.
Sixty-year-old Demme is not shy about his politics. Heralded at the time, his 1993 treatise Philadelphia has dated poorly with its op-ed approach to AIDS and homosexuality. During a private screening in New York last week, Demme was quoted by Variety dropping some unintentional irony: “This is a movie about political brainwashing, and we’re right back there again now. I hope it has the potential for stimulating people to start thinking about the process because Lord knows we could use some stimulation.” Even in his acclaimed Silence of the Lambs, Demme took real-life FBI profiling innovator John Douglas and warped him into an unsympathetic, untalented bureaucrat.
The new version of Manchurian Candidate stars Denzel Washington in Sinatra’s role. Marco is trapped in a conspiracy surrounding Gulf War veteran Raymond Shaw, portrayed by Liev Schrieber. Shaw is now a two-term New York congressman and potential vice presidential candidate. Meryl Streep co-stars as Shaw’s mother, an ambitious senator from Virginia who orchestrates her son’s ascension to the vice presidential slot and may have something to do with Marco’s growing doubts regarding Shaw’s legitimacy as a war hero. Unheard of in modern politics, the power move is made during her party’s nominating convention. Here, the film makes its most glaring political error when Shaw threatens to “impeach” the senator favored in the vice presidential nomination selection if he doesn’t step down in deference to Shaw.
The major buzz surrounding the film centers on whether Streep’s Senator Shaw is based on Hillary Rodham Clinton. Both are female senators who rose to prominence on the careers of their husbands. Ultimately, the HRC significance proves a Rorschach (and hairdo) test for viewers. Those on the left will see Streep’s character as a war-happy conservative who bases her decisions on shady corporate ties. Conservative theorists will see the cold and calculating senator in familiar fashion styling, placing ambition before principle. Tapping into the darkest of Clinton conspiracy theories, Senator Shaw even has a troublesome colleague murdered while in seclusion at his private residence.
Despite Demme and Streep’s overt liberal leanings, the film treats its political situations with a modest degree of reservation. No character is identified as belonging to either party. However, with Streep’s determination that her party not give up on the South, and fear of appealing only to “minorities and college students,” it’s not terribly hard to guess that they are Democrats. Appearing in a cameo, Al Franken plays it straight as a cable newsman without falling into jokes about Republicans or Bill O’Reilly. The only real news personality who appears is Forrest Sawyer, showing up to read election night returns.
Some viewers were visibly caught off guard by a few graphic depictions of violence in the film, especially in a particular scene when Washington’s character bites off more than he can chew. This was followed soon after by Streep’s character giving the younger Shaw lip service in a most disreputable sense. Though in Demme’s defense, this scene appears in the original as well, and both thankfully make use of the cutaway camera effect.
With Demme’s potentially nauseating overt political leanings kept reasonably in check, The Manchurian Candidate provides viewers with a moderately entertaining summer thriller. Matinee viewers will not be disappointed.
Eric Pfeiffer is a Senior Writer for National Journal‘s Hotline.
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Joseph Hammond
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Emma Elliott Freire