Revisiting Hours: ‘The Manchurian Candidate’ and Our Era of Perpetual War
Every Friday, we’re recommending an older movie that’s available to stream or download and worth seeing again through the lens of our current moment. We’re calling the series “Revisiting Hours” — consider this Rolling Stone’s unofficial film club. This week: Scott Tobias on Jonathan Demme’s 2004 remake of The Manchurian Candidate.
It never sounded like a good idea to remake The Manchurian Candidate. Majors studios are always looking to plunder the vaults, eager to turn yesterday’s properties into tomorrow’s surefire hits, but John Frankenheimer’s 1962 conspiracy thriller wasn’t Starsky and Hutch or Fat Albert or even The Stepford Wives, to name three other I.P. redoes hitting theaters in 2004. Jonathan Demme had tried to work his elusive magic on another early Sixties treasure, the Cary Grant/Audrey Hepburn confection Charade … and wound up with The Truth About Charlie, the biggest critical and commercial disappointment of his career. It’s better than its reputation — look past Mark Wahlberg’s wet sock of a lead performance and there are eclectic delights galore — but the bad vibes seemed to follow him to which opened late in the summer to respectful reviews and quietly wilted in the August heat. It was never going to live up to the unimpeachable original, despite the ingenious casting of Meryl Streep as the movie’s Lady MacBeth in a pantsuit.
Yet Demme’s Manchurian Candidate did what remakes should do, which is to reimagine the same material to much different ends. The director took a Cold War freakout about the Korean conflict and the Communist threat, and turned it into Gulf War I story that actually comments on Gulf War II while continuing to tell the tale of American imperialism in the 21st century. Consider the audacity of the timing alone: Our nation’s excursion in Iraq had only just started the year before, under the false pretense that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. The Bush administration had done an excellent job ginning up popular support, mostly by fudging a connection between Iraq and the terrorists responsible for 9/11. So not only were Demme and company assessing an ongoing conflict — something mainstream films have traditionally never done — they were sharply criticizing a war that had not yet been deemed a fiasco. At a time when major studios were plundering the vaults, looking to turn yesterday’s properties into tomorrow’s surefire hits, Demme slipped in like a thief in the night, smuggling a truly radical film under the cover of a Hollywood star vehicle.
Both films are clever acts of subversion. Working from Richard Condon’s novel about a war hero who returns as the unwitting agent of a communist plot, Frankenheimer and his screenwriter, George Axelrod, flipped a Kennedy-era Red Scare thriller on its head, decrying the paranoia and violence that had consumed American politics. They also provided a lasting metaphor for any politician who acts as a vessel for someone else’s agenda, especially if that someone else hails from a hostile foreign nation. (Like, say, Russia.) Of the many tweaks Demme and his screenwriters, Daniel Pyre and Dean Georgaris, made to the original, the most important is changing Manchuria from a region in communist China to an American private equity firm, Manchurian Global, with its hands tucked elbow-deep in Congressional sock puppets. In Sergeant Raymond Shaw (Liev Schreiber), a Medal of Honor winner with a powerful U.S. Senator for a mother, nefarious parties see a chance to install “the first privately owned and operated Vice President of the United States.” Once there, they’re merely a rifle blast away from the top.
Some of the basics between the two films are the same: Denzel Washington steps into the Sinatra role of Maj. Bennett Marco, commander of a unit that’s ambushed and taken hostage. But his memories of the events conflict with his dreams, which tell a much different story. Two of the men from his unit were killed in combat, despite Shaw’s courageous actions in the field; his dreams suggest, however, that he and Shaw each murdered one of the men under hypnosis (or, in a slight modification here, a high-tech medical implant). In both version, the pawn is not a particularly charismatic or likable man, even though his comrades-in-arms continually describe him as “the kindest, bravest, warmest, most wonderful human being I’ve ever known in my life.” And yet through the insistence of his mother, who’s eager to use his heroics to further his family’s political legacy, he’s thrust into the Presidential race.
Where the movie differ, though, is crucial in appreciating how far Demme has gone recasting The Manchurian Candidate as a searingly of-the-moment political statement. By shifting the role of the Shaw matriarch from Angela Lansbury’s sinister behind-the-scenes operator to a sitting U.S. Senator, the film not only targets the complicity of Congress in filling the coffers of private war contractors like Halliburton and Blackwater, but specifically puts one sitting Senator in particular, Hillary Rodham Clinton, in the crosshairs. Streep has vociferously denied basing her performance on the politician, but she certainly looks the part. And she more or less acts the role that way as well — her Ms. Shaw is a hawkish Senator who voted in favor of the War in Iraq and triggered the attendant boom in contracts to private companies like Halliburton, which happened to be run by Dick Chaney before he became vice president.
Even if you’re inclined to deny the connection between Eleanor Prentiss Shaw and Hillary Rodham Clinton — though please also note the names, which are only one syllable off in the surname — The Manchurian Candidate ’04 is the rare case where not assigning parties to politicians is damning. Both parties are guilty. Manchurian Global is an effective stand-in for the entire Military-Industrial Complex, an insatiable beast that feeds on blood and treasure. It has no ideology other than money. The one major irony in the film is such a massive conspiracy isn’t necessary. Manchurian Global doesn’t have to go through the trouble to stage an ambush, brainwash an entire unit, and take ownership of a Medal of Honor winner with a clear path to the presidency. It just has to cut a check.
For admirers of Demme, there are a handful of appreciable touches on the margins: A “Fortunate Son” cover by Wyclef Jean, a near-silent (but indelibly sinister) performance by the musician Robyn Hitchcock, and the usual bit parts for delightful character actors and friends like Bill Irwin, Paul Lazar, Ted Levine, Charles Napier and Roger Corman. But The Manchurian Candidate is perhaps the angriest film of his career and one of his least recognizable, because he’s so studious in channeling and redirecting Frankenheimer’s film to a bold new end.
What the filmmaker couldn’t have known at the time — and what he can’t know now that’s no longer with us — is that his remake would become a movie about an endless war that’s quietly, perpetually replenishing itself, with no clear goal or endpoint on the horizon. Over the summer, Blackwater founder Erik Prince renewed his pitch to privatize the war in Afghanistan, preying on President Trump’s frustration that the umpteenth troop increase in the country had paid no dividends. This is the environment that Candidate 2.0 identified 14 years ago, when the fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan still had popular support, were still viewed as achievable solutions to the terrorist threat. Now it’s tucked away on streaming services, as neglected and vital as a war buried deep in the queue.
Previously: Short Cuts