Stuck on Rewind
Memo to Jonathan Demme: Enough with the Remakes Already!
What’s the point? Most remakes of classic films beg this question, and as classics go, John Frankenheimer’s 1962 political thriller The Manchurian Candidate is no slouch. Unfortunately, seeing Jonathan Demme’s new remake of Frankenheimer’s film doesn’t bring you much closer to answering that critical question. Demme has turned in a feature that boasts generally solid acting and an acceptable (if modest) entertainment quotient. But any praise for the film ends there: Today’s Manchurian Candidate also feels painfully hollow, and falls far short of justifying its existence.
And justify it Demme should. The Silence of the Lambs helmsman was also recently the director of ’02’s The Truth About Charlie, another imperfect remake of a perfect film, Stanley Donen’s sublime Charade (1963). In that film, Demme offered us Mark Wahlberg in lieu of Cary Grant. And while Demme’s Manchurian Candidate gives us a more reasonable trade-off in Denzel Washington standing in for Frank Sinatra, Demme’s still on some sort of sick streak and has some serious explaining to do.
Here Washington ably portrays U.S. Army Major Ben Marco, a Gulf War veteran haunted by memories of his tour of duty in Kuwait. While he has publicly heaped much praise on fellow soldier turned politician Raymond Shaw (a fine Liev Schreiber), Marco privately harbors serious doubts about the supposed heroics that earned Shaw the Medal of Honor. Marco’s restless nights bring vivid nightmares about Shaw and Kuwait that seem more real than his waking memories. What’s more, Marco crosses paths with other members of his platoon, who all describe Shaw’s actions using the exact same words—and all suffer from the same tormenting visions at night.
As Marco begins to sense something amiss with his Gulf War experience, Shaw’s mother, calculating and influential Sen. Eleanor Shaw (Meryl Streep, more coasting than creepy), is positioning her son for his party’s vice presidential slot in the upcoming election. Shaw reacts to her maneuvering with some discomfort: His anti-corporate, humanistic politics seriously conflict with her pro-business outlook and close ties to the nefarious Manchurian Global corporation.
To be fair, one does occasionally see what Demme was thinking in undertaking this film. A presumptive progressive based on his well-intentioned Philadelphia and his recent dissident documentary The Agronomist, Demme stacks his Manchurian Candidate with a few left-wing aces. Dealing with the Gulf War’s aftermath allows for contemporary illustrations of how shabbily our government treats its veterans—not to mention what chemical and biological travesties it might expose them to in combat. Furthermore, the sense of dread with which it depicts the madness of the first Gulf War sharply calls into question our current military presence in Iraq.
Even more explicitly, by positioning as bad guys the pernicious, unredeemably fascistic corporation Manchurian Global—an entity with more than a passing resemblance to the pernicious, unredeemably fascistic corporation Halliburton—Demme asks us to think about the intersection between corporations, warfare, and politics. And if you can say such a thing without getting a knock on your door from those paid to uphold the Patriot Act, you can even see why Demme might have thought a film about political assassination might play to galvanized eyes within our current Up With Evil political climate.
Sadly, Demme doesn’t take any of these ideas far enough. In the end, no film better illustrates the increasing supremacy of the American documentary than this one. Demme can wink at the liberals in the audience all he wants—as he does by casting unrepentantly loudmouthed leftist Al Franken in a tiny role as a news reporter—but in the end, his budget demands he provide his producers with some gore, gunshots, and a highly offensive happy ending. Meanwhile, documentaries such as Fahrenheit 9/11, Control Room, Super Size Me, The Revolution Will Not Be Televised—and yes, The Agronomist—have all found ways to entertain with facts and explicit arguments instead of winks and suggestions.
Frankenheimer’s film impressed audiences as new, vital, and shocking. Demme’s film, despite some meager merits, is little more than a stale money-guzzler, devised to cash in on the continued freshness of its namesake. Interestingly, the Truth About Charlie DVD came packaged with Charade as a bonus feature. Disregarding that this is a little like packaging Twinkies with free boxes of Godiva chocolates, it might also indicate how Demme justifies these missteps in his mind: as homages that inspire home video (re)viewings of the originals. But these remakes are not selfless homages. They’re a scam that uses Demme like a brainwashed automaton, a scam that seems more worthy of Halliburton or Manchurian Global than it does a medium that has, at times, proved itself an art form.