The Manchurian Candidate (15)

Still out to get you - but in a new way

John Frankenheimer's 1962 film The Manchurian Candidate, scripted by George Axelrod from Richard Condon's novel, initiated a genre which wouldn't find its name for several years - the paranoid political thriller. It's hard now to imagine how strange this barely categorisable film - part mystery story, part satire, part Lewis Carroll nightmare - must have felt in 1962, with its story of brainwashed GIs manipulated by Chinese scientists. The Communists may ostensibly have been the film's arch-villains, yet their American minions - Angela Lansbury's Republican matriarch and her pet McCarthy-like politico - were its true horror figures. The film came across as a brash Swiftian fantasia of across-the-board demonisation; as US critic Roger Ebert put it, The Manchurian Candidate "satirises no particular target - left, right, foreign, domestic - but the very notion that politics can be taken at face value."

Jonathan Demme's 2004 remake of The Manchurian Candidate not only carries the burden of matching up to the original; it also follows in the wake of four decades of paranoid fictions, not to mention the real-world paranoid imaginings sparked by Kennedy's assassination and Watergate. The 1962 Candidate was unprecedented; the remake will be measured against those sublime mid-Seventies anxiety-inducers The Parallax View and The Conversation, and against TV series including The X-Files and 24. The paranoid genre, to paraphrase a much-loved piety about America, has lost its innocence; at least, it has lost the novelty that Frankenheimer's film could claim. Today, the proposition that some hidden "They" is pulling all the strings is no longer a challenge to received wisdom but is virtually the orthodoxy. The original Candidate was genuinely perplexing in its premise that irreconcilable political positions might be secret allies behind the scenes. Demme's remake simply expresses a plausible, commonly-held, non-contradictory view of political power: its Axis of Evil is an all-powerful US corporation. Virtually an amazing-adventure gloss on the argument of this year's hit documentaries Fahrenheit 9/11 and The Corporation, Demme's Candidate registers as an only slightly exaggerated cartoon of American politics in the age of Bush, Fox News and bodies such as Enron, Halliburton and the Carlyle Group.

Scripted by Daniel Pyne and Dean Georgaris, the new story, artfully echoing and re-inflecting the original, begins in Kuwait in 1991, with the ambush of an American platoon. Years later, one of the soldiers, Sgt Raymond Shaw (Liev Schreiber), is an adulated war hero and a charismatic potential candidate for vice-president. His erstwhile commanding officer, Major Bennett Marco (Denzel Washington), pays dutiful but hollow testimony to Shaw's heroism. But his nightmares tell Marco that things didn't happen the way he seems to remember.

Where the original's treatment of the brainwashing premise was dryly zany, Demme's is at once clinical and hysterical, involving a smiling scientist (Simon McBurney) with a power drill and a creepy comb-over. In this story, the manipulators are a powerful corporation called Manchurian Global, which sees war as an opportunity to clean up: as one executive puts it, to make "a strong, safe, more profitable world". The plan is to make Shaw "the first privately owned and operated vice-president of the United States". Do I hear you nervously chuckling that it could never happen? That's the problem: Frankenheimer's film was hair-raisingly surreal, enough to tease its audience into wondering whether any of its imaginings could come true. By contrast, Demme's takes off from mundane reality: we know about the Bush administration's business connections, and how lucrative the Iraq war is for certain companies, so this aspect of the film hardly comes as a surprise. When you strip away the thriller and weird-science elements, what's most impressive about Demme's film is its coherent view of American politics and especially of the noxious power of rhetoric. Shaw ostensibly seems to be running on a liberal ticket, on proud intentions of closing the economic divide, but it's not long before his talk turns to authority and insecurity: "I know how much Americans have to fear today... Democracy is not negotiable." Meanwhile his liberal rival (Jon Voight) warns of the suspension of civil liberties, and you remember that the film is set in the same nation where George Bush has just announced four more years of "fun". (It's never specified which party Shaw belongs to, although one imagines he's actually a right-wing Democrat.)

The film is especially astute (though this is hardly a novelty either) on the hysterical intensity of political coverage in the US media. We constantly see TV screens blazing with campaign news, but the presence of human beings on them is drowned in computer-generated Stars-and-Stripes imagery and ticker-tape headlines; at Shaw's campaign HQ, a glaring son et lumière goes on outside his office window. Politics has become a constant white noise, drowning out lucid argumentation.

Perhaps Demme's most disturbing insight comes when Shaw visits a polling station: his admirers' faces show awestruck, quasi-religious adulation. It's as if the glorification of candidates has eliminated the human from politics entirely.

Yet it's on the ordinary human level that Demme's film is most affecting: it is still people who are pulling the strings and having their strings pulled. Demme has assembled a typically involving cast, headed by Denzel Washington as Marco: Washington goes from lofty, self-possessed Army spokesman to troubled, obsessive investigator, revealing greater depths of neurotic vulnerability than this often detached actor usually allows himself to. Liev Schreiber is extremely affecting as the variously stiff, weak, opaque Shaw, his pink, smooth-shaven jowls poignantly suggesting a shiny, overgrown baby.

The dominant presence, though, is Meryl Streep, brilliantly reimagining the Lansbury role as Shaw's sleekly castrating mother. With a crisp touch of Tippi Hedren, her Senator Shaw is a Capitol Hill Messalina, and a soul sister to Demme's other screen man-eater, Hannibal Lecter. Streep flutters, flirts, goes stone-cold scary, and even manages to sardonically crunch an ice cube. In one scene, she cajoles and terrorises a board of elder statesmen into backing her boy: it's a dazzlingly cool and concise demonstration of the mechanics of political persuasion, and will no doubt be studied in boardrooms and party offices for years to come.

In the end, there are no twists, shocks or paradoxes that make the ground drop out from beneath your feet, which makes the film somewhat less paranoid than you would hope. It's a drama with convictions, rather than with unassuagable anxieties, but no doubt Demme hoped his audience would feel driven to the polls, not to Prozac. This Candidate has class, brio and intelligence, and you'll probably have a ball. But, unlike the 1962 version, it won't linger in your sleepless hours.

j.romney@independent.co.uk

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