Summer Camp

Demme's Candidate overhaul goes for the knowing giggle.

The Manchurian Candidate
Brainwashed and mind-controlled: Denzel chases - truth -- and an assassin.
Brainwashed and mind-controlled: Denzel chases truth -- and an assassin.
Jonathan Demme's gutsy The Manchurian Candidate, which dares to rear its head just as the Democratic National Convention convenes in Boston, is the anti-Bush-administration movie for those who refuse to see Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 or Robert Greenwald's Outfoxed because, well, they just ain't Right. It's less a remake of director John Frankenheimer's 1962 original, about a brainwashed assassin out to make his mommy's husband President, than a reconceptualization in which the bad guys are both the politicians using fear to manipulate voters and the multinationals who use politicians to control the government. "Secure tomorrow" is the rallying cry of this movie's villains, for whom the Constitution is as disposable as tissue and the never-directly-mentioned-but-always-referred-to Patriot Act is the most valuable weapon against evildoers promising another "cataclysm." And the media serve as co-conspirators: In Demme's world, the audience consumes a nonstop feed of a Fox News Channel facsimile, where the government's press releases are treated with the unquestioning reverence reserved for the Ten Commandments.

Demme's movie still thrills and chills -- effectively, too, since minor alterations to the plot deposit the movie at an altogether different finale than the one novelist Richard Condon and screenwriter George Axelrod posited. Demme opens his movie during the first Gulf War, as Bennett Marco (Denzel Washington, in the Frank Sinatra role) is leading his platoon into Kuwait during a routine recon mission; among his soldiers is Sergeant Raymond Shaw (Liev Schreiber, channeling Laurence Harvey), the aloof son of a powerful conservative senator played by Meryl Streep. In eerie dream sequences that become occasionally grotesque flashbacks, we learn that the squad is ambushed and taken to a faraway base on a remote island, where men in white overcoats treat them to the Clockwork Orange special. Their brains are washed and implanted with mind-control devices that make them do horrible things to their own comrades. Of course, we already know this; we've seen the original. It's how the filmmakers alter the inevitable that makes this Candidate a kick.

When they return to the States, Shaw is a war hero, given the Medal of Honor for saving his squad during the ambush; Marco and the men who survived, especially Jeffrey Wright's disheveled Al Melvin, are racked by nightmares of what really happened. Marco, who's been promoted to major, has become a total disaster, living on nothing but ramen noodles and No Doz, keeping his glasses together with masking tape, and finding no one within the Army to believe his story. The Commies of the original film are now replaced by The Corporation: Raymond's now the pawn of the multinational Manchurian Global. When the time is right, Raymond's switch will be flipped, and the man who espouses "compassionate vigilance" will become someone for whom civil liberties are a thing of the distant past.

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