The Manchurian Candidate Review

Having failed quite spectacularly with The Truth About Charlie, his last work of fiction and a remake of the Cary Grant-Audrey Hepburn thriller Charade, many would agree that Jonathan Demme’s decision to next turn to The Manchurian Candidate as a remake possibility was a foolhardy one. In the very least, this previous venture had seen the director providing source with a different flavour (an homage to the more mainstream impulses of the nouvelle vague replete with cameos from Agnes Varda and Charles Aznavour), but The Manchurian Candidate is an altogether quite different prospect, one more indelibly linked to the sixties. After all, its blend of political thriller and political satire gains its edge by viewed being viewed through a melange of cold war paranoia, McCarthyism and, retrospectively, the Kennedy assassination, making it one of the least likely candidates for a 21st century reacquaintance. Understandably a reconfiguration has had to take place and, aside from some subtle tweaks to keep fans of the original engaged, this means that capitalism is the new communism, the Gulf War takes the place of the Korean War, Gulf War Syndrome replaces “reds under the bed” paranoia, plus there are various nods, of varying degrees of explicitness, to the U.S.’s military and political histories of the last 15 years. That said, this newer version maintains the crux of both Richard Condon’s original novel and George Axelrod’s 1962 screenplay inasmuch as this is still essentially a conspiracy thriller, one in which the brainwashing of a platoon stationed in Kuwait in 1991 has unexpected ramifications on a political campaign in 2004.

Perhaps sensing that he is likely to be met with a cautious audience, Demme likewise takes a guarded approach. Indeed, given that most remakes reach production solely as a means of making money, it’s surprising to come across one that doesn’t draw attention to itself. Yet this isn’t a simple case of playing it safe, rather Demme’s level of control works in the film’s favour. Though there are obvious parallels with Dick Cheney, Halliburton and the recent presidential election, the 2004 Manchurian Candidate doesn’t quite have the same satirical impact as its predecessor meaning that the political thriller elements understandably have to take centre stage. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing - and, certainly, a satire-less Manchurian Candidate works better than a played-straight Dr. Strangelove would - but it does mean that the film has less to fall back on. However, in adopting this low-key manner, Demme is able to find the requisite level of paranoia without ever lapsing into absurdist territory. His favoured method is in juxtaposing gentle, almost indiscernible tracking shots with static, rigidly framed and quite imposing medium close-ups. In doing so he creates a highly disconcerting feeling, one which given the camera’s proximity to its subject never allows to fully disassociate from the characters and their fates. Moreover, he has also fashioned an equally delicate soundtrack, this time weaving Rachel Portman’s score (which journeys around the same few notes not unlike a paranoid mind), the incessant white noise of brash U.S. political reportage and jarring, unexpected burst of post-punk from the likes of Gang of Four, the Prats and the Dead Kennedys all of which combines to likewise place us directly within the film, but never comfortably so. Its instructive at this point to compare Demme’s effort with Tony Scott’s 1998 Enemy of the State, a film which, though engaging, almost completely bludgeons its audience with the most obvious of editing and aural devices, ones which unavoidable draw attention to themselves. To find something more in line with , however, we instead have to turn to, quite unexpectedly, Demme’s 1997 documentary Storefront Hitchcock, a film which recorded a low-key gig by the singer-songwriter Robyn Hitchcock in such an unobtrusive manner that, although changes were obviously taking place (the background shifts from day to night and back again), you can barely sense the hand behind the camera.

Perhaps coincidentally, Hitchcock also crops up amongst The Manchurian Candidate’s hefty cast list. Though primarily a musician he makes an understated character actor, a quality that obviously appeals to Demme given the number who appear here. Indeed, once again we can see the director making a considered, if muted approach in this respect, by drawing on the understated talents of the likes of Bruno Ganz (fittingly playing a European friend), Simon McBurnley, Jon Voight, Dean Stockwell and Zeljko Ivanek. (Fans of the director will also be pleased to know that Roger Corman also pops up for his customary cameo.) Interestingly, their usage is also reflected in the casting of the lead roles, which again seem almost unassuming if hardly lacking in quality. Of course, for anyone who has seen the original version, these leads have a lot to live up to, especially Meryl Streep in taking on the Angela Landsbury role (a performance which was so good you can forgive her every single episode of Murder, She Wrote), and it is to this character that most of the more obvious tweaks have been made. She’s now less of a Lady Macbeth and more of a Hilary Clinton, but still it’s difficult to escape Landsbury’s shadow, whilst her big scene - the incestuous kiss - though played slightly differently doesn’t quite have the sheer force of the original.

The two male leads fare better, yet this isn’t a reflection on Streep, but rather that they manage to complement the original Manchurian Candidate in different ways. Liev Schreiber shares with his predecessor Laurence Harvey a certain invisibility that serves him well here. Indeed, when I recall Harvey’s other work, such as Room at the Top and I am a Camera, I find it difficult to actually remember him being in those films, and it’s an effect that Schreiber shares. This isn’t necessarily meant as a criticism (though many have used it against Harvey in the past), especially in the context of the two Candidates where the charm and Hollywood actor ethos is able to come through, but in a curiously uncharismatic manner that suits the material well. (I’d have to watch the film a few more times, but it’s a possibility that Schreiber’s performance is actually the better of the two.)

The casting of Denzel Washington in the Frank Sinatra role is altogether different affair, as the similarities between the two are far less obvious. Most notable is the fact that the Washington character is now a much less of an obviously heroic figure. What’s interesting in this regard, however, is not so much how the performance compares with Sinatra’s but with Washington’s other work. Again, in line with the calmness of Demme’s approach, its a less showy role than that of, say, Training Day or The Hurricane and one which sees the itchier side of Washington’s persona, one which only occasionally sees the light of day given his current choice of roles. Of his most recent performances it is the put upon father in John Q that the character most resembles here, which is actually quite fitting as that eponymous figure was perhaps the closest the actor has got to down-to-earth person in recent years. And what Washington gives to The Manchurian Candidate is a sense of the real world amongst its more far-fetched plot devices; he may not be a sympathetic character (he’s a touch too cold for that), but he’s an undeniably recognisable one, especially when we see him walking the streets muttering to himself in a dishevelled paranoid state.

It’s touches such as this one which make this new Manchurian Candidate a far more interesting prospect that perhaps could have been expected. There’s also the possibility that it makes for a more rewarding experience if you come to it having not seen the John Frankenheimer original. Yet it’s difficult to recommend from this angle because if you haven’t seen the 1962 version then you really should do so beforehand. (Coming at the films in the reverse order will no doubt take something away from the original.) Certainly, it must be said that Demme has produced a version that doesn’t quite have the same timely edge as the original and as such will never occupy the same place in the hearts of film fans as that version does, but its an admirable venture and one that repays repeat viewings. It’s also perhaps Demme’s finest fictional piece since The Silence of the Lambs and more than makes up for The Truth About Charlie.

The Disc

As is to be expected Paramount release The Manchurian Candidate onto DVD in fine condition and with a healthy collection of extras. The film has been presented anamorphically at a ratio of 1.78:1 from a print that shows no signs of damage, whilst the DD5.1 superbly recreates the imaginative way in which Demme has created the slowly encroaching heightened sense of paranoia. Indeed, both are fine as could be expected, though the sound is perhaps the more impressive of the two as it would have been far easier to mess up.

With regards to the extras, the centrepiece is undoubtedly the commentary by Demme and co-writer Daniel Pyne. There is an element of the love-in about their chat (the first words from Pyne to Demme: “You are damned fine!”), but they talk enthusiastically about their film and, most rewardingly, spend the time to discuss how the film has taken on an added dimension owing to the current Iraq War and recent election (both of which occurred whilst the film was in post-production). Given their different roles on the film they are also able to consider various other aspects of the film and so we also get an insight into how Pyne approached the original, how Demme approached directing a remake, plus the expected discussion of scenes that were deleted, the casting of the actors and other such commentary mainstays.

The two ‘making of’ featurettes are equally worthwhile, both of which avoid the usual EPK fluff. The first discusses the idea of remaking in more depth that the commentary, touching on why things were changed and also has some input from Tina Sinatra, daughter of Frank, on why she decided to go ahead with the project in the first place. The second piece focuses on the cast, from the leads down to the smaller character roles. This is the lesser of the two as it does err towards the sycophantic at times, but the casting is such an important part of this particular picture that it deserves discussion.

Pyne and Demme return to provide optional commentaries on the various deleted scenes and outtakes. As with their main talk track they touch on the important aspects whilst the scenes themselves prove interesting if not essential (though they do add little areas of added explanation). Nevertheless, they’re another welcome inclusion.

Also present on the disc are Liev Schreiber’s original screen test alongside Meryl Streep (oddly framed at 2.35:1 when the film proper has a 1.85:1 ratio) and a piece entitled ‘Political Pundits’ which shows us uncut various scenes that were used amongst the political commentary that formed the film’s insistent background noise. This piece also comes with a brief optional commentary from Demme in which he provides context and points out who the various faces are (director Sidney Lumet and rapper Fab 5 Freddy among them).

All of the special features come with optional subtitles as per the main feature, except for the various commentaries which come with optional English and German subs only.

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